In 1999, Bale contributed to an all-star cast, including Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Stanley Tucci, and Rupert Everett, portraying Demetrius in an updated version of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He also filmed Mary, Mother of Jesus, a 1999 made-for-television Biblical film that retells the story of Jesus through the eyes of Mary, his mother.
In 2000, Bale played serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, director Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel. Bale was briefly dropped from the project in favor of Leonardo DiCaprio, but DiCaprio eventually dropped out to star in The Beach, and Bale was cast once again. He researched his character by studying the novel and prepared himself physically for the role by spending months tanning and exercising in order to achieve Bateman’s Olympian physique, even going so far as to distance himself from the cast and crew in order to preserve the darker side of Bateman’s character. American Psycho premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival to much controversy. Roger Ebert condemned the film at first, calling it pornography and “the most loathed film at Sundance,” but gave it a favourable review, writing that Harron “transformed a novel about bloodlust into a movie about men’s vanity.” Of Bale’s performance, he wrote, “Christian Bale is heroic in the way he allows the character to leap joyfully into despicability; there is no instinct for self-preservation here, and that is one mark of a good actor.” On April 14, 2000, Lions Gate Films released American Psycho in theatres. Bale was later approached to make a cameo appearance in another Bret Easton Ellis adaptation, The Rules of Attraction, a film loosely connected to American Psycho, but he declined out of loyalty to Harron’s vision of Bateman, which he felt could not be properly expressed by anyone else.
In 2000, he played the main villain in John Singleton’s remake of the 1971 film, Shaft. Bale has played an assortment of diverse characters since 2001. His first role after American Psycho was in the John Madden adaptation of the best-selling novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Bale played Mandras, a Greek fisherman who vied with Nicolas Cage’s title character for the affections of the desirable Pelagia (Penelope Cruz). Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was Bale’s second time working with John Hurt, after All the Little Animals (1998).
In 2002, Bale starred in three feature films. Laurel Canyon (2002) was generally well received by critics. This film also marked the second time he worked with actress Kate Beckinsale, his costar in Prince of Jutland (1994). Critics generally focused on star Frances McDormand’s performance over the rest of the cast.
Reign of Fire was Bale’s first action vehicle and had, compared to all his previous work, an immense budget estimated at US$95,000,000. Bale entered into negotiations about starring in the film with reservations, but director Rob Bowman convinced him to take the lead role. Bale starred as Quinn Abercromby opposite Matthew McConaughey’s Denton Van Zan. Bale and McConaughey trained for their respective roles by boxing and working out. Equilibrium was Bale’s third film of 2002, costing US$20 million to produce but earning just over US$5 million worldwide. In Equilibrium, Bale played John Preston, an elite law enforcer a dystopian society. Equilibrium featured a fictional martial art called Gun Kata that combined gunfighting with hand-to-hand combat. According to moviebodycounts.com, the character of John Preston has the third most on-screen kills in a single movie ever with 118, exactly half of the movie’s total of 236.
After a year’s hiatus, Bale returned in 2004 to play Trevor Reznik, the title character in the psychological thriller The Machinist. Bale gained attention for his devotion to the role and for the lengths to which he went to achieve Reznik’s emaciated, skeletal appearance. He went without proper rest for prolonged periods, and placed himself on a crash diet of generally coffee and apples, which reduced his weight by 63 pounds (27 kg) in a matter of months. By the end of filming Bale weighed only 121 pounds (55 kg), a transformation he described as “very calming mentally” and which drew comparisons to Robert De Niro’s alternate weight-gaining regimen for his role as Jake LaMotta in the 1980 film Raging Bull. Bale claimed that he had not worked for a period of time before he was cast in the film. “…I just hadn’t found scripts that I’d really been interested in. So I was really dying for something to arrive. Then when this one did, I just didn’t want to put it down. I finished it and, upon the kind of revelation that you get at the end, I immediately wanted to go back and re-visit it, to take a look at what clues I could have gotten throughout.” The Machinist was a low-budget production, costing roughly US$5 million to produce, and was given only a limited US release.
Bale, an admirer of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, was then cast as the voice of the title character, Howl, in the English language dub of the Japanese director’s fantasy anime adventure Howl’s Moving Castle, an adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’s children’s novel. Its profits in the US were US$4,711,096, a fraction of its worldwide gross (US$235,184,110).