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You Pitchin' to Me?

If you're wondering what Travis Bickle has been up to for the last twenty years, here's the answer. He's changed his name to Gil Renard, taken a job selling big hunting knives out in San Francisco and become the baseball fan to end all killer baseball fans.

Or so it would seem. The resemblance between the solitary psychopath Robert De Niro played in Taxi Driver and the solitary psychopath he plays in Tony Scott's The Fan turns out to be a kind of cheating maneuver on the part of the moviemakers, but it's a lot more than skin deep. It's as if De Niro, still the finest movie actor in America, got a mysterious phone call in the middle of the night from a character he once knew and just couldn't stop himself from patching into the guy's twisted circuits all over again.

Since Travis Bickle roamed the streets of New York searching for recognition and identity at any cost, celebrity worship has swelled into a full-blown global epidemic, complete with casualties. From John Lennon's murder to the stabbing of Monica Seles by a crazed tennis fan to the death of Latin pop star Selena, we have seen the relationship between idols and their acolytes turn ever darker. A glamorous movie star or ballplayer making 30 or 40 million bucks a year exerts a certain magnetism on huge numbers of people, but the dangerous few who can't handle the attraction seem to be growing into the dangerous many. Ask David Letterman about that woman hanging around his place in Connecticut. Witness the kidnapped romance writer in Misery and his "number-one fan": What'll you bet Stephen King himself has had a close call or two?

Enter Gil Renard. Like a lot of clueless jock-sniffers, he's got his brown van all junked up with bobbing-head baseball dolls and pennants, a San Francisco Giants spare-wheel cover and a ton of other stuff most guys outgrow by the time they hit ninth grade. He's also addicted to sports talk on the radio, another refuge for the get-a-life set, and he's the kind of insufferable Little League father who always knows more than the coaches and firmly believes he would have made it in the Bigs if his arm hadn't gone south.

So far, he's indistinguishable from 200 drunks with their faces painted orange in the South Stands or those loudmouths who hover over the visitors' bullpen at Coors Field, screaming insults at the relief pitchers.

What makes Gil Renard different is that lethal touch of Travis Bickle. Instead of setting out to save a twelve-year-old prostitute from the streets of hell, this inverted idealist wants to save the Giants' newly acquired star outfielder, Bobby Rayburn, from a batting slump that has the fans booing him mercilessly and Bobby doubting his own abilities. Fired from his job as (strike that ominous chord) a hunting-knife salesman, his life in tatters, Gil Renard stalks all his demons in search of his lost self. Suffice it to say that the word "fan" still derives from "fanatic," and upon this pitch does the whole enterprise depend.

Is there a greater pleasure at the movies than watching De Niro apply layers of coloration and quirks and telling gestures to a performance? That little wounded strut he gave the explosive fighter Jake LaMotta, the cold, acquisitive gaze of his young Vito Corleone and the twitchy menace he brought to Bickle are not just well-chosen details but rather character itself. Before he even opens his mouth, De Niro gives us all kinds of signs and signals about the secret life within.

He does it again in The Fan. This particular portrait of obsession doesn't rank with the great De Niro performances, but the way desperate Gil unfurls his sheaf of knife samples or hands a pizza carton to the son he's abandoned at the ballpark are sheer beauty. When he gets into Bobby Rayburn's closet and comes across one of his old game jerseys, the mad look on his face is for the ages.

It wouldn't do, however, to ignore Wesley Snipes. His Bobby Rayburn, a four-time batting champ just traded from Atlanta, has all the bulletproof attitude and cocky hauteur of, say, Barry Bonds. But like Gil Renard, he's a rigid perfectionist. When he stops hitting, he stops living. And when this nutty fan pushes into his life and decides to stay, Snipes ably shades his performance, showing us a player who learns baseball is not everything. That both men have sons is crucial to the proceedings, but the less said about that the better. Meanwhile, the local color: Ellen Barkin as an ill-mannered talk-show host; John Leguizamo as Bobby's slick agent; and Benicio Del Toro as Juan Primo, Rayburn's bitter rival in the Giants outfield and one of the obstacles to Gil Renard's turbid fantasies of success.

"Baseball is better than life," Gil says. "It's fair."
Actually, the baseball in the movie, overseen by iron man Cal Ripken, is pretty fair--up to a point. Director Scott, who has shepherded such action epics as Top Gun and Crimson Tide, knows how to get visceral excitement onto the screen, and a couple of the game sequences--shot at Candlestick Park and in Anaheim--are spellbinding displays of sweat, sinew and power-hitting, all in surreal closeup. But Scott and former Cheers writer Phoef Sutton don't know when to stop, and what begins as a fairly chilling portrait of a madman in the making ends with the kind of preposterous set piece more suited to Schwarzenegger than De Niro. It's raining buckets. The big game is in the ninth inning. And deadly weapons are drawn all around.

Tony Scott's big finish is straight out of the summer-blockbuster textbook, and it doesn't serve The Fan very well. In fact, as a meditation on what the celebrity culture hath wrought, an earlier De Niro effort, The King of Comedy, works better, and Taxi Driver itself remains matchless. But De Niro is still the man, and that justly attracts, well, lots of fans.

The Fan.
Screenplay by Phoef Sutton, from a novel by Peter Abrahams. Directed by Tony Scott. With Robert De Niro, Wesley Snipes, Ellen Barkin and John Leguizamo.