By the mid-90’s, Tony Scott had firmly established himself in the pantheon of Hollywood’s most bankable action directors. His 1996 effort, THE FAN, continues his streak of high concept, big budget action films with compelling stories at their centers.
Stories about psychotic stalkers and their celebrity obsessions abound in pop culture, and while THE FAN has mostly been forgotten in the years since its release, it holds up quite well as an effective thriller. Robert DeNiro stars as Gil Renard, a San Francisco Giants superfan whose preoccupations with all-star Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes) spiral downwards into psychosis.
This was my first time seeing THE FAN, and I was struck at how tempered Scott’s depiction of DeNiro’s madman initially was. We see his complete transformation, from schlubby knife salesman who can’t even be a good father without screwing up (despite his best efforts), to completely unhinged psychopath holding Rayburn’s son as a hostage. DeNiro does a fantastic job of generating a fair amount of sympathy for his character early on. He’s just a regular guy that loves his Giants and his kid– sometimes these two loves butt heads up against each other, but who hasn’t been there, right? He’s disorganized and is treated horribly by his boss. For much of the film, we’re rooting with him to overcome these difficulties. It’s a nuanced, intricate performance where the shift to total psycho is a gradual, believable one.
Wesley Snipes also turns in arguably one of his career-best performances here as new Giants teammate and MVP Bobby Rayburn. He’s fast-talking and cocky, like other African-American protagonists in previous Scott films (Eddie Murphy and Damon Wayans come to mind), but when he must assume the moral high ground in the second half, he compellingly delivers the desperation of a man whose son is in mortal danger.
The supporting characters are comprised of notable faces. John Leguizamo, in his second appearance in a Scott film (and his first English-speaking role in one), plays Rayburn’s manager as an energetic, street-wise businessman. Benicio Del Toro shows up, albeit with ridiculously ugly red hair, as a rival Giants player who’s stolen Rayburn’s lucky number. It’s a small but pivotal role, as he is the catalyst in Renard taking his first steps into madness. A pre-fame Jack Black even shows up in one scene towards the beginning, as a radio show employee.
Right off the bat (…pun intended?) it’s apparent that Scott is trying to emulate the tone of a Martin Scorsese film, albeit while keeping his traditional aesthetic intact. He collaborates once again with Dariusz Wolski to create an image that’s high in contrast, deeply saturated, and favors warm orange tones during exteriors and cold greenish hues under fluorescent lights. Skies are dramatic, and overblown light through venetian blinds abound. However, everything else points to a heavy Scorsese influence: the introduction of handheld camerawork, punchy editing and breakneck pacing in the vein of a music video, experimental cuts (like a deep red tint dominating the image during Benicio’s murder), and the strategic use of slow-motion. Even the casting of DeNiro is a dead give-away to Scott’s intentions. While initially coming off as an emulation however, it’s important to note that it’s leading Scott to further cement a new directorial aesthetic– one which would become inarguably his own.
The Scorsese-fest continues in the music arena. While Scott retains the services of Hans Zimmer for a traditional score, he also peppers the film with an eclectic (if maybe misguided) mix of pop and rock songs. He leans heavily on The Rolling Stones to establish a certain tone, but falters in his choices of tracks. Namely, he simply copies the Scorsese catalog of their greatest hits (and the ones most over-used in films): “Sympathy For the Devil” and “Gimme Shelter”. While it’s unoriginal, it fits the aesthetic of baseball as a sport in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on.
Scott also uses a curious mix of Carlos Santana and Nine Inch Nails songs, the latter of which are meant to convey the inner psychosis of Renard. Although, it gets a little Jerry Sandusky when Trent Reznor’s lyrics “I wanna fuck you” can be heard over and over while DeNiro holds Snipes’ son hostage. While the soundtrack is probably an accurate reflection of what was popular sixteen years ago, it is the only element that really dates the film.
Having just seen The Giants play at Dodger Stadium a few days prior to watching THE FAN, it was really interesting to see how passionate their fans truly are, even a decade and a half later. I witnessed the zeal and bravery with which the small number of Giants fans cheered their team on, amidst the veritable sea of Dodger lovers– so DeNiro’s leap into psychotic obsession wasn’t too big of one to believe. It’s a very interesting backdrop for a film that plays with the inherent obsessiveness of being a diehard baseball fan, while daring to cross the line into dark territory. THE FAN is a moody, stylish thriller that perhaps has been unjustly forgotten by time, but holds a special place in the hearts of its dedicated super-fans.
THE FAN is currently available on standard definition DVD from Columbia TriStar.