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Tony Scott, the auteur of such blunt-instrument entertainments as Top Gun and True Romance, is not a director for whom subtlety is a way of life. So it comes as a surprise that in The Fan, a formulaic but genuinely creepy melodrama about an obsessed stalker and a baseball superstar, Scott evidences a fair degree of restraint. In fact, there's scarcely more blood spilled here, on and off the baseball diamond, than was shed during the recent bench-clearing brawl between the Houston Astros and the Montreal Expos.
To be sure, there is a constant threat of violence throughout the movie. After all, the unbalanced antagonist has ready access to various forms of flesh-piercing hardware, since he's a knife salesman. More important, this salesman is played by Robert De Niro, an actor who likely would exude bad vibes and barely contained bloodlust if he were cast as St. Francis of Assisi. De Niro brings heavy baggage with him -- Taxi Driver and Cape Fear are only the two most obvious movies that spring to mind -- and it doesn't exactly come as a shock when his character, Gil Renard, begins to express his frustration in a nonverbal fashion. Even so, De Niro has some tricks up his sleeve. Much like the movie itself, he manages to upend your expectations more often than you might expect.
During the first third of The Fan, De Niro earns a fair bit of sympathy as he plays Gil Renard as a kind of latter-day Willy Loman. Gil is a salesman for a San Francisco firm that his father helped establish, and he's determined to maintain the family tradition of quality products at fair prices. That alone makes him a walking anachronism in the eyes of most folks around him. He seems every bit as out-of-date in his idealized view of professional sports as a noble and uplifting pursuit. Certainly, he's aware that baseball has become big business. But he doesn't begrudge a star player such as Bobby Rayburn (credibly played by Wesley Snipes) a $40 million salary. The only thing Gil cares about is that Bobby's a four-time RBI champ with a .310 lifetime batting average. And, better still, Bobby's signed his exceptionally lucrative contract with the San Francisco Giants. Surely, Gil figures, anyone who's that great at the game must truly love baseball for its own sake, and must deeply cherish the adulation of fans who cheer him on to glory. Right?
When Bobby tumbles into a humiliating slump, moving fickle fans and snide sportscasters to question his value to the Giants, Gil remains unwavering in his support. Besides, Gil can appreciate how a little bad luck, and a lot of bad decisions, can drag you down. He's been fired from his job -- partially because he isn't selling enough product, and partially because, in his desperate, rage-fueled zeal to make a comeback, he's scaring co-workers and potential customers. Worse, while taking one last crack at a major customer, Gil leaves his young son alone at a Giants game. He doesn't mean to be gone long, but he is. Just long enough for his son to panic and seek help. And that's more than enough for Gil's resentful ex-wife to seek a restraining order to keep him out of their lives.
So it's easy for Gil to share Bobby's pain when the baseball star suddenly finds himself unable to hit high hard ones out of the park. And when Gil finds that Bobby might need a little help in restoring his self-confidence, he's more than willing to provide some unsolicited assistance. Bobby wants to wear his old jersey number, 11, the one he wore while on other teams. But that number has already been claimed by another Giant, Juan Primo (Benicio Del Toro), a cocky young player who's just coming into his own. Juan refuses to turn 11 over to Bobby. So Gil resolves to take Juan out of the starting lineup.
Working from a screenplay by Phoef Sutton, which, in turn, was based on a novel by Peter Abrahams, Tony Scott is predictably resourceful when it comes to delivering cheap thrills and nasty shocks with The Fan's scarier sections. He blithely disregards niceties of logic and probability when it serves his purpose, particularly during a climactic baseball game that continues to be played during a downpour that would have intimidated Noah. And he never gets around to explaining Gil's compulsive playing of Rolling Stones songs. Is the salesman as obsessed with Mick Jagger as he is with Bobby Rayburn? Is he really telling the truth about once being some sort of roadie or traveling companion with the band? Or is Robert De Niro simply eager to replay some of the great music from the Casino soundtrack? It's never made clear. But when Scott wants us to focus on what might happen when Bobby steps up to bat in a life-and-death situation, it's difficult to remain immune to his skillful manipulations.
The Fan might have been a better movie if it had paid more attention to things that wind up serving merely as window dressing for the thriller plot. For instance, Gil appears to define himself in terms of his work almost as single-mindedly as Bobby. (Each man has endured a failed marriage, and neither spends as much time with his son as he would like.) When Gil loses his job, it drives him, well, crazy. So crazy, in fact, that he figures Bobby must be every bit as distraught about his own career difficulties. The Fan also has some interesting things to say about the ambivalent relationships between fans and sports stars, players and sports reporters. (John Leguizamo, hilarious as Bobby's agent, bluntly refuses to let radio-show host Ellen Barkin interview his client, telling her, "He'd rather nail his dick to a burning building.") In short, The Fan has a lot more going for it than you might gather from the overblown ad campaign. But it never allows anything too thoughtful or provocative to get in the way of living down to expectations.
Directed by Tony Scott. With Wesley Snipes, Robert De Niro, John Leguizamo and Ellen Barkin.
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