Say it ain't so, Bob.
But Bob De Niro can't say it ain't so, and Wes Snipes can't say it ain't so either.
That's because it is so: The mighty expensive "Fan" has struck out.
An extremely overwrought, finally ludicrous stalker thriller set against a background of major league baseball, it appears to have been made by people who never set foot in a ballpark until they showed up at Candlestick Park with $50 million worth of equipment.
They don't even get the crack of the bat right. If there's a signature baseball sound, it's the Louisville ash meeting the horsehide, that deeply organic, vibratory SWAK that sends reverberations of sheer quivery pleasure into the center of your ancient brain -- that is, unless it's the other team's guy who's made such good contact, in which case it's the pain center that lights up. Here's how they handle it in "The Fan": BONK!
That's right: BONK. Not SWAK! but BONK! Metallic, echo-buzzed, pitiful. Someone hitting a washboard with a spoon. Someone dropping a quarter on a Chevy's roof. Someone throwing a wrench at your Aunt Fanny's steel kneecap.
The plot, which follows as psycho De Niro gets more dangerously obsessed with a new arrival to the San Francisco Giants, is contorted to set up a gloss on the Babe Ruth legend, where the Sultan of Swat had to hit a dinger to keep a boy alive. Alas, in the mean modern world of "The Fan," the boy isn't just any old dying kid but star outfielder Bobby Rayford's own son, kidnapped by De Niro and presumably at death's doorstep unless the four-bagger is delivered.
Snipes plays Bobby perhaps too affably: I never believed for a second this man was a member of the elite of the elite, the cabal of consistent .300 hitters who can name their price and city. He's too open: He doesn't have the modern ballplayer's aloofness when interfacing with the unwashed peasants of the public; you don't feel his authentic personality shifting behind a Kevlar pad of cliche, drivel, rote memory and complete dullness.
He's like no major leaguer anyone has ever seen: He actually seems human!
As for De Niro, he's quite authentic. Unfortunately we've seen this twitchy drill at least twice before, as the comically self-absorbed kidnapper Rupert Pupkin in "The King of Comedy" and as the really nasty white-trash kidnapper Max Cady in "Cape Fear." One extra step "The Fan" does manage to take is in invoking his pitiful life.
He's not merely evil because he's a madman and a madman because he's evil: The screenplay, by Phoef Sutton, goes to great lengths to display the dynamic of a mind absorbed with baseball fantasy but otherwise completely rigid and controlling, even as it dangerously destabilizes. De Niro's Teddy Pepper is a geek, a failed knife salesman and divorced dad enjoined against tormenting his own son with his futile perfectionism, who comes to invest in the newly acquired Rayford's career with a passion that becomes madness. He goes from sports call-in defender to secret sharer to kidnapper. You can tell which mode he's in by the dilation of the vein in his temple.
The subtext is the ballplayer's responsibility to the fan, as if he has one other than hitting the freaking ball. But Teddy believes he does, and interprets it as if it's a mandate from heaven. He even intervenes violently in team culture to assist Bobby out of xTC slump. At that point, he believes he owns Bobby. When he finds he doesn't, things get messy.
But the screenplay is also one of those twist-crazy things where every seven or eight seconds they hit you with a wacky reversal! This is a low pleasure, but it is a pleasure nevertheless. However, I remain of the old school: in my way of thinking, the twist has to be appropriate and connect with something previously established in the plot, so that it arrives sustained not merely by surprise but also by logic and further illumination.
The big twist in this one is so dumb I yearn to spoil it by giving it away. Well, even I have some scruples left. But let's just say: When De Niro's hiding place in the big game in the rain at movie's end is finally disclosed, if you don't groan with disgusted disappointment, you should vow never to take an IQ test.
As an exercise in style, the movie is as relentless as a bad case of gastrointestinal flu. Directed by the famous, horrible Brit show-off Tony Scott, who never met a weird camera angle he didn't love, the movie's one of those in-your-face ordeals with such a ratta-tat-tat cutting rhythm it gives you the jitters and it gives your jitters the creeps. The whole thing left me in need of a drink, and even if they'd brought in the great Jon Miller, who can make a 15-2 blowout seem like the last of the Peloponnesian Wars, to narrate it, it wouldn't have mattered. Not even Miller could save "The Fan."
Starring Robert De Niro and Wesley Snipes
Directed by Tony Scott
Released by TriStar
Rated R (violence)
Sun score **
Pub Date: 8/16/96