The Other Guys is the movie that changed Adam McKay's career. After making a name for himself by directing and co-writing the goofy Will Ferrell comedies Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers, he added a semi-serious plot involving Ponzi schemes and bank bailouts to his Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg buddy-cop picture. That, in turn, opened the door for him to make The Big Short -- a more ambitious, less kooky take on financial misdeeds, specifically the collapse of the housing market. Now McKay goes full-on political with Vice, a take-no-prisoners look at former Vice President Dick Cheney and the policies he spearheaded that arguably damaged America irreparably.

Christian Bale looks exactly like Cheney, thanks to some outstanding prosthetic work. He also perfectly replicates the man's deep monotone. Early scenes show him dipping his toe in the political waters and making connections to prominent Republicans like Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). Cheney is like a master chess player, always working several steps ahead of everyone else. This benefits him upon receiving a call from George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). Bush wants him to be his running mate. Cheney demurs, saying he has no interest in what is essentially a ceremonial position. If Bush were to give him more power than a normal VP, though, that would spark his interest.

We all know he took the job. From there, Vice looks at how Cheney used the juice given to him by Bush to erase important environmental regulations, to advance conservative causes, and, most egregiously, to knowingly invade the wrong country after Sept. 11 and sell it to the American public as the right call. The film is especially critical on this last count, stating, as many others have previously, that it was all about the oil.

Obviously, this is a lot of heavy material. McKay is smart enough to know that a little humor helps it go down smoother for the audience. While many of the scenes present information taken directly from public record or news accounts, Vice intermittently goes off into a delightfully weird little aside, for the purpose of making a point. One of the most stunning scenes finds Cheney and wife Lynne (Amy Adams) launching into Shakespearean prose. It's a way of suggesting that Cheney's power play was not unlike something the Bard would have dreamed up and that Lynne was a virtual Lady Macbeth. Another moment, in which the film pretends to be over halfway through, hilariously suggests what might have happened had Bush's offer never been made.

Balancing a tone that intermingles comedy and political content is never easy, yet McKay pulls it off. There is a fearlessness to Vice that's enthralling. The movie continually throws a lot of information at you, then ties it all together with a laugh. That makes it entertaining, without sacrificing the urgency of the message.

It probably doesn't need to be said that the director's message is that Dick Cheney was bad for America. Vice could never be called "fair and balanced." (A post-credits scene hysterically imagines disparate audience reactions to the movie.) Even so, it least respects his shrewdness -- the way he expertly knew how to play the system. Because it has this respect, the indictment of him hits that much harder.

Christian Bale is excellent in the lead role. Playing someone who expressly holds all his cards close to the vest is a challenge. The actor gives strong indications of what's happening inside Cheney's mind, even as he puts on his best poker face. Amy Adams also does fine work, giving Lynne a drive that's every bit equal to her husband's. Carell and Rockwell have smaller parts that add significantly because of their attention to character detail. Rockwell, for instance, doesn't play Bush as an idiot, but rather as a guy who knows he's in over his head and is therefore more than happy to have a knowledgeable running mate.

Vice is provocative, often funny, and honestly a little messy at times. McKay's style of mixing serious political analysis with satiric asides makes it feel alive in a way few films of its type do. You may agree with the picture's take on Dick Cheney. You may disagree with it. Either way, you'll get a thoughtful look at how one person can change the world so indelibly, for better or worse.

out of 4

Vice is rated R for language and some violent images. The running time is 2 hours and 12 minutes.