Like his obsessed heroes, Werner Herzog continues to hear the call of the jungle. Having already documented the true-life saga of German-born U.S. navy pilot Dieter Dengler in his superb Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog gives the story a fictionalized retelling in Rescue Dawn. On his first bombing mission over pre-Vietnam War Laos in 1966, Dieter (Christian Bale) is hit by enemy fire and crashes into the green expanses below; captured by Laotian soldiers, he is dragged to a POV camp where his unswerving drive to escape inspires the skeletal prisoners (Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn are among his hollowed-out mates). Just as Grizzly Man was regularly and erroneously read as a Very Special Animal Planet segment, so may Rescue Dawn be boxed-in as a proficient, survival action flick. On the surface a disconcertingly mainstream project for the existential German maverick, the film gradually stretches its generic skin to reveal flashes of Herzog's visionary eccentricity, which, while for the most part subdued as to not disrupt the overall inspirational mood, continually throw the material into a myriad of fascinating angles. While in Little Dieter the real-life pilot seemed suspended tenuously between the peace of modern-day freedom and the haunting horrors of his past, Bale's Dieter is primarily concerned with the present-tense, visceral dimensions of his ordeal, from enduring torture in the Laotian outpost to surviving in the surrounding jungles once a risky escape is arranged. Of a piece with Bale's physically remarkable yet thoroughly un-Teutonic incarnation, the shift appears reductive until it becomes clear that, in its feverish desire to conquer the overwhelming physical world around him, little separates the protagonist's can-do American cockiness from the mania of Klaus Kinski's choleric conquistador in Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Suffering from a certain shortage of poetic images and a lingering feeling of déjà vu, the film might have been an anonymous stirring tale if its maker's intensity didn't keep burning holes in the fabric; never less than gripping, it shows that Herzog could have been a steady helmer of mainstream hits if he weren't such a bedeviled artist.