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Movie Reviews

The Fan  

Starring: Robert DeNiro, Wesley Snipes, Ellen Barkin Directed by: Tony Scott Written by: Phoef Sutton Rated R

Tony Scott's "The Fan" is one of the most terrifying films I've seen in quite some time. It's told from the perspectives of two individuals most audience members won't relate to, yet somehow manages to allow us to feel what they feel and experience what they experience. It studies the behavior of it's characters so closely and allows that element to dictate the story. About halfway through "The Fan", I almost forgot I was watching a movie and felt I was watching true life unfold in horrifying fashion.

Alfred Hitchcock used to say: "I enjoy playing the audience like a piano." He did, and was incredibly good at it. However, one of the problems I have with many thrillers these days is that the filmmakers try too hard to imitate him, or rely too heavily on fancy camera tricks and gimmicks to get a cheap thrill from the audience. "The Fan" takes a scary situation and simply observes it with a keen eye. Director Tony ("Crimson Tide") Scott uses numerous close-ups to place the audience smack dab in the middle of the suspense, yet those close-ups never seem to get in the way of the story. The end result is a film with a horrific aura that engulfs the audience from every angle, underscored by a Robert DeNiro performance that is subtle enough to creep right into our darkest fears, then unleashes its fury on our conscious mind in the film's final act.

Gil Renard (Robert DeNiro) is a true baseball fan. As the movie opens, we see old baseball clips light up the screen as we hear Renard's voice talking about how the fans make the game. Baseball is his life. He was a very good player in Little League and has been an avid fan ever since. So much so that he doesn't put his complete effort into his job as a knife salesman. He knows his job is important, but baseball is his passion. Gil is the type of person who places more emphasis on his passion than what is really more important. In one of the movie's most revealing moments, Gil takes off work to take his son to opening day, then has the audacity to leave him there while he goes to catch a very important business meeting.

Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes) is a professional baseball icon who has just signed a forty million dollar deal with the San Francisco Giants. He is the type of person who at one time was a true lover of the game, but who seems to have been side-tracked by the money, the women, and the media attention. At the beginning of the film, these two men are brought together through a sports radio talk show hosted by Jewel Stern (Ellen Barkin). These types of radio shows are becoming quite popular, allowing fans to get "up close and personal" with their sports heroes. The conversation the two men have in this scene is friendly, yet there is a very unsettling quality here. Professional baseball is not the same as Little League baseball, yet I sometimes get the feeling that many fans think of the two in a similar vane. When I listen to radio call-in shows like the one depicted in the movie, the fans who call in seem to have a certain patronizing quality in what they say. They sometimes don't sound like fans talking about their "heroes" as much as like fathers who are talking about their "sons". Thus, the passions of the fans have a tendency to escalate to ominously overshadowing proportions. With the stakes continuously on the rise in professional sports, maybe fans shouldn't have such easy access to the players.

Ultimately, the paths of these two men will cross, but the film never feels forced. Renard isn't a raving lunatic, but rather a man with an unbridled passion for the game, coupled with a narrow-minded focus on what he feels is right and wrong. The most frightening scenes in the movie aren't between DeNiro and Snipes, but rather between Renard and his family. (There is a scene at his son's Little League tryout which is quite unsettling.) Bobby Rayburn is a man who at first I had somewhat mixed feelings about. I always tend to have mixed feelings about people who make upward of forty million dollars and thrive on life in the public eye. However, the movie does an excellent job of showing the difficulties someone like him would have to face. During a slump, he steps out onto the field to take his turn at bat, turns and sees numerous signs with hateful messages on them scattered throughout the crowd. It's scary, when you think about the time it takes to sit down and create those signs and banners, then see the words of hate painted on them. Just how serious are those feelings of anger and disgust housed by the many thousands of spectators?

DeNiro gives another fabulous performance here, although some may look upon it as "just another psycho" role. That is definitely not the case. In some ways, it's similar to the abusive father role he played in "This Boy's Life". He's both scary and pathetic at the same time. Gil Renard is a man departing from reality. Even the ending, which may seem over-the-top, works because it symbolizes the crescendo of that very departure. Wesley Snipes is also good, although probably won't get much recognition for his work. Sports celebrities are often viewed as larger-than-life, yet Snipes resists the temptation to be anything more than a simple human being caught in a scary situation. Usually, the hero is a simple man in the beginning who becomes a hero by the end. Here, it's more the opposite, and Snipes plays it well.

Tony Scott is a director who has clearly hit his stride. After flailing around with flashy but mediocre films ("Beverly Hills Cop II", "The Last Boy Scout", among others) he finally hit the mark with the terrific submarine thriller "Crimson Tide". He outdoes himself here, creating without a doubt his finest film. What makes him such a solid director is that he understands the medium of film so very well. He knows what will work and what won't, and thus, can get the most out of the story he is telling. He uses close-ups and quick edits from time to time, but doesn't go overboard. He's smart enough to let Phoef Sutton's script and DeNiro's and Snipes' performances tell the story; his camera effects and editing techniques simply enhance it.

I have a feeling that many people will look at the previews for this movie and assume it's just a conventional thriller that they've seen so many times before. Actually, there is nothing conventional about it. The story unfolds rather than forces itself. It's a thriller that works from the inside-out. The terror doesn't show itself immediately, but rather slithers it's way into the mind, then grasps on to our fears and twists them every which way. It's not a pleasant film, but good suspense thrillers never are - they just work. "The Fan" works. It's one of the most frightening films of the year - and one of the best.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney Critically Ill

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