The Fan

on August 16, 1996 by Wade Major
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   Gil Renard (Robert De Niro) and Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes) are both divorced fathers of sons who share a passion for the great pastime of baseball. And that's where the similarities end. Renard is a white, frustrated knife salesman (yes, a "knife" salesman) for whom baseball has become more a philosophy than a sport. "Baseball's better than life," he tells his son at one point. "Baseball's fair." Rayburn, conversely, is a baseball sensation, the San Francisco Giants' newly signed $40 million superstar, a man who appears to have virtually everything going for him--except his lucky number 11, which belongs to the team's Latin superstar, Juan Primo (Benicio Del Toro).
   That, essentially, is the cat-and-mouse setup for director Tony Scott's latest testosterone-fest, a typically slick and mostly taut psychological thriller that, for once, puts the emphasis on the psychological. Adding yet another loose-screw psychopath to his proud collection, De Niro plays Renard with seething menace, less fan than fanatic, living his missed opportunities and blown chances vicariously through Rayburn's success. It isn't until Renard's life finally spirals out of control, however, that he graduates from obsessive fan to murderous stalker, killing Primo (with a knife) as a means to helping Rayburn out of a slump, only to later turn on his hero after sensing that his "gift" has not been sufficiently appreciated.
   Despite many contrivances (imagine if De Niro had been a zucchini salesman) and somewhat hackneyed conclusion, "The Fan" ranks well above most recent thrillers and, for that matter, sports films. It's a far more insightful look at the psychology of professional sports than even Scott's own misguided "The Last Boy Scout."
   Adapting from the Peter Abrahams book, screenwriter Phoef Sutton ("Mrs. Winterbourne") has wisely left the story's strongest thematic elements intact, intelligently tackling a host of uncomfortable issues, most notably the superhuman expectations that sports fans place on professional athletes and their too frequently tragic consequences. Perhaps it is because the deaths of John Lennon and Rebecca Schaeffer at the hands of alleged "fans" remain so fresh in the public memory that it's possible to forgive "The Fan" its shortcomings. Or, perhaps, it's because it unmasks an obsessive dark side of human nature that few "fans" wish to acknowledge in themselves. Either way, though imperfect, "The Fan" is unquestionably important.    Starring Robert De Niro, Wesley Snipes, Ellen Barkin, John Leguizamo and Benicio Del Toro. Directed by Tony Scott. Written by Phoef Sutton. Produced by Wendy Finerman. A TriStar release. Thriller. Rated R for strong language throughout and some intense violence. Running time: 113 min.
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