The Fan (1996)

Is there anything more soulless than a thriller that plays with you just for the sheer bullying sake of playing with you? Any idiot can tighten the screws by, say, putting a cute kid in danger … or how about this: putting a cute kid in danger from Robert De Niro! What genius! The Fan, which stars De Niro in his 500th whackdoodle role, is professionally made and sharply acted across the board, but it’s still a bummer — more ugly and depressing than haunting or suspenseful.

Gil Renard, De Niro’s latest wingnut, is a schlumpy knife salesman whose life is falling apart. His one remaining passion is baseball, and when his favorite player, hot-shot Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes), joins his favorite team (the San Francisco Giants), Gil is in heaven. He projects his fantasies onto Bobby; in Gil’s fracturing mind, the dreams and agonies of his life crystallize around the superstar. For about the first hour, De Niro comes through with a suffocatingly real portrait of a lost soul. No actor does implosive psychosis better than the man who played Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin. But when things start going wrong for Gil, and he becomes bitter and violent, De Niro falls back on the menacing, crinkly grins he overworked in Cape Fear. And the film, which began as a compelling parallel study of two men at opposite ends of the rainbow, becomes junky and crude — a flashy splatter movie. And without the drive-in charms of actual splatter movies.

The Fan has been around before in various permutations; in one of its previous lives, it actually had the same title, and starred Lauren Bacall as a Broadway diva hounded by nutcase Michael Biehn. Celebrity stalking is a sad and relatively new subgenre of the slasher movie. The villains are pathetic, lonely wretches who yearn to slash through their anonymity. Material like this needs to be handled seriously (Taxi Driver) or as black comedy (The King of Comedy, I Shot Andy Warhol). Otherwise, the horror comes across as callous and pointless. The director, Tony Scott (True Romance), teases us with shots of Gil fondling his knives, readying us for future carnage. The Fan doesn’t miss a trick. We feel nothing in particular for Bobby until he turns out to have an adorable little boy, who might as well have “Kidnap Me” stamped on his forehead. These are all standard slasher-flick gimmicks.

Gil is enraged that the high-paid Bobby, idolized by millions, doesn’t care much about the game itself — that baseball is as cutthroat a business as Gil’s knife company. What exactly does Bobby owe his fans? At times, the movie comes dangerously close to endorsing the murderous Gil’s disillusioned view of Bobby, who takes the American dream for granted. Near the end, when everyone runs around trying to stop Gil, The Fan becomes “serious” and hypocritical. Tony Scott puts us in the position of enjoying De Niro’s detailed performance, but then he turns Gil into a monster waving a bat or a knife, so that we can also savor his inevitable death. Gil dies for our sins of idolatry, I guess. There’s something pathetic and sick about The Fan, and it isn’t Gil.

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