What Bill Clinton Is To fries and a Big Mac, Robert De Niro is to psychos. He can't get enough of them. De Niro eats those suckers for breakfast. Maybe he'll change his diet after The Fan, a pumped-up, pinheaded thriller from slick-trick director Tony Scott (Top Gun, Crimson Tide). De Niro stalks again as divorced dad Gil Renard, a baseball freak fixated on center fielder Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes), who has traded up from Milwaukee to the San Francisco Giants with a wow $40 million contract.
Scott reports that Snipes wanted to play Gil and so did Brad Pitt, and Al Pacino was also considered. Smart thinking. It's the star part, and another actor might have kept us guessing about where the plot was heading. With De Niro, there's no mystery. He flashes that sicko grin from his seat in Candlestick Park, and we duck. He learns he's about to lose his job selling knives (!), and we know it won't be long until the stabbing starts. That's the problem. You sit down to watch The Fan and wonder how De Niro is going to come up with something new after firing on presidential candidate Leonard Harris in Taxi Driver, kidnapping TV star Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy, torturing lawyer Nick Nolte in Cape Fear and abusing stepson Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy's Life, to name just a few of the victims De Niro has memorably stalked.
Say this for De Niro: He can still throw a curveball. He sneaks up on the character this time. Gil look fairly normal driving to work and listening to a radio show in which a sportscaster (sassy Ellen Barkin) interviews Bobby and ribs him about how fast the fans can turn on a $40 million man if he doesn't deliver. Gil calls in on a car phone to defend his idol, referring to the "mystical junction" between players and fans. The lady laughs at Gil's highfalutin language, but Bobby offers thanks. The first connection is made.
Adapting the novel by Peter Abrahams, screenwriter Phoef Sutton pays unusual attention to nuance, given the trashy circumstances. Gil's passion for excellence in baseball and the sporting knives he sells is contrasted with the crude deals Bobby makes with his agent, played with comic cunning by John Leguizamo.
Compared with these barracuda businessmen, Gil is a guppy. It's his insistence on Quality that jeopardizes his job at the hunting-supplies office his late father founded. Gil feels lost. He can't hold his temper even around the son he loves and who loves him in return. When the boy reports that his friend's dad thinks Bobby is a loser, Gil tells him, in language more appropriate to use with Harvey Keitel than a kid, that his friend's dad "take it up the ass." When a ball is batted into the stands, Gil nearly knocks his son over reaching for the souvenir. For Gil's ex-wife (Patti D'Arbanville), the last straw comes when Gil leaves their scared son alone at the game to make a sales call.
Up till this point, The Fan shows signs of finding fresh life in a stale formula even Jim Carrey couldn't sell with The Cable Guy. De Niro is so persuasive and moving that you wish the film would let him develop the characterization and dodge the slasher stuff. It's not to be. As Gil slips into madness, The Fan slips with him, substituting crass exploitation for insight.
Since Gil's decline on the job coincides with Bobby's slump on the field, his identification is complete. In saving Bobby, Gil can save himself. Bobby's team rival, Juan Primo, played with stylish cool by Benicio Del Toro of The Usual Suspects, must go. In a scene of churning violence set in a steam room and stunningly shot as a waking nightmare by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, the knife comes out.
The taste of blood fires Gil to worm his way into Bobby's life by rescuing the slugger's young son from drowning. Bobby rewards the stranger by letting Gil try on his uniform and pitch a few balls to him on the beach. They talk baseball, giving the excellent Snipes a chance to flesh out a woefully underwritten role. Bobby says he hates the geek fans who hound him and claims that the secret of playing well is not caring. Feeling betrayed, Gil the fox abducts Bobby's son and plots revenge.
A climactic night game in bruising rain becomes a matter of life and death. Hans Zimmer's music pounds, Scott piles on the tension, and the actors are reduced to pawns. Perhaps the director's brother, Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise), could find gravity in this story; Tony Scott goes for the gore and the box-office gold. He strands his MVP, who is too skilled an actor to let himself get typed as De Niro da nut. One more flick like The Fan and he may discover he's created his own Frankenstein monster. Hey, De Niro, we know you're as bad as you wanna be. Now it's time to be better.