For those who may not have noticed (or cared) baseball season has reared its ugly 178-year-old face once again and will now haunt us for the next five or six months. I’m in a weird place with baseball these days. My love of football has far eclipsed my love for America’s pastime. If we still had a basketball team in Seattle, there’s no doubt in my mind, I’d be more invested in that as well.
Yet baseball makes for the best sports movies. It may not have the hard hits of football or buzzer beaters of basketball, but it has a history. Over a century of stoic figures stepping up to the plate, facing down others like outlaws from a Sergio Leone movie. The game can be slow but slow can also mean suspenseful and there are few games in the world as nerve-wracking, tense and suspenseful as baseball. Therefore a baseball thriller seems like a no brainer.
Based on the 1995 novel by Peter Abrahams, The Fan directed by Tony Scott is the story of Gil “Curly” Renard (Robert De Niro) a struggling knife salesman and longtime San Francisco Giants fan obsessed with the team’s latest acquisition, all-star outfielder Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes). When not visiting clients, Gil spends his time calling into a sports talk show hosted by Jewel Stern (Ellen Barkin) and recounting how he almost made it to the big leagues as a pitcher.
As the film unravels, we discover there is a darker side to Gil. He is an irresponsible father, abandoning his son at opening day to go make a business call, has a short temper with people, and an even shorter temper for people who don’t respect the game. This dark side escalates when Gil’s new favorite player falls into a slump and Gil has to take the matter into his own hands.
It’s a promising premise. Gil is fascinating and De Niro brings a level of intensity that only he or maybe Jack Nicholson could. Which is funny considering Nicholson was also considered for the part. Personally, I think De Niro is the better choice. A big part of De Niro’s appeal is his ability to portray common, blue collar guys. I can buy that he’s this obsessive tough guy who throws knives into walls and chugs down the highway in a beat-up van decked out in Giants gear.
Intimidating? Forget about it. You want to be uncomfortable? Try watching De Niro yell at a coach during a Little League game—this is after his character’s ex-wife files a restraining order—only De Niro can be that scary.
Bobby Rayburn, on the other hand, is a standup guy. I figured they would go the route of making him a big jerk who only plays for the money, which would lead to Gil’s disillusionment but they don’t. Instead, Bobby genuinely loves the game and is coy towards fans who call him greedy. Think of Bobby as a toned down “Willie Mays” Hayes from Major League. You like him the moment you meet him.
The suspense in the film is drawn from Gil’s reaction or overreaction to Bobby’s slump. After a solid opening day, Bobby can’t hit the broadside of a barn and is outshone by his teammate Juan Primo (Benicio del Toro). Gil believes this is because Juan wouldn’t give Bobby the number 11 on his jersey to start the season. 11 being the number Bobby has played with his whole career to honor his dad. Gil hates Primo’s smugness and lack of class so he does what any sane person would do and tracks him down to a hotel sauna and stabs him to death.
I knew this was going to be a thriller, but I didn’t think De Niro was going to go full Norman Bates. He even cuts off Primo’s tattoo of the number 11 as proof of his work. I’m not sure how Gil tracked down Primo but there’s a bigger problem with the scenario. “If Gil cares so much about the team, why would he kill the team’s best player?” Gil loves Bobby because he’s a former hometown boy and he’s good to his fans, but he’s not a baseball saint. There’s not much difference between Bobby and Primo aside from how they handle themselves toward the press and yet Gil loves Bobby and HATES Primo.
After the death of Primo, Bobby gets his number back (to Giants fan’s chagrin) and starts to play like his old self. Meanwhile, Gil’s life spirals out of control. He loses his job—though for some reason gets to keep the hundreds of knives he has—loses his apartment, and feels Bobby owes him for getting him out of his slump. Gil takes his obsession one step further when he starts to spy on Bobby and his son Sean (Brandon Hammond). Sean almost drowns while swimming in the ocean, leading Gil to appear seemingly out of nowhere to rescue him. Gil finally gets to meet his hero and introduces himself to Bobby as Curly. In gratitude, Bobby invites Gil over to his place. BIG MISTAKE.
Gil or “Curly” plays dumb when Bobby shows him all his sports memorabilia. Gil actually speaks to Bobby over the radio earlier in the film, so he doesn’t want to give away that he’s been stalking him. Bobby asks Gil if there’s anything he can do to repay him and Gil asks to pitch to Bobby on the beach. He agrees and they have a talk where Gil asks about Bobby’s slump only to discover why Bobby believes he bounced back.
“You know Curly, I just stopped caring, man,” Bobby says. Of course, this pisses Gil off to no end and leads to an awkward confrontation. I’ve posted the scene directly below. It’s classic De Niro.
Disappointed by his hero’s newfound outlook on the sport, Gil takes matters into his own hands by stealing Bobby’s hummer and kidnapping his son Sean. This is where the film veers off into sheer ridiculousness. Gil hatches a plan to release Bobby’s son on the condition that Bobby hit a home run in his next game and dedicate it to Gil. If he doesn’t, Gil will kill Sean. Bobby works with a team of detectives to try and track down Gil in the meantime but to no avail.
Now in fully crazy mode, Gil drives Sean to an industrial part of town where Gil finds his old catcher, Coop (Charles Hallahan), working from a trailer. Gil introduces Sean as his son and convinces Coop to catch some pitches. Suspicious, Coop waits for the right moment to let Sean make a run for it. Gil takes notice and beats Coop with a bat. This leads to an exchange that I find disturbing and incredibly effective.
Gil: We could’ve been teammates. We were teammates, man. We could’ve made it to the Bigs.
Coop: It was Little League. We were 12 years old.
(Coop gets beaten with a baseball bat)
Wow. This whole time you figured Gil was talking about college ball or the minor leagues. No, Little League. He’s not descending into madness, he’s always been mad. I honestly didn’t see this coming, but it was a nice reveal. Even if the film is a full blown action-thriller at this point.
The last half of the movie almost kills it for me; the cops trying to trace calls, on the lookout, tracking Gil like he’s a criminal mastermind. It only gets more ridiculous as Bobby ends up going to the game the next day and has to hit a home run before the game gets postponed on account of a severe thunderstorm. Now, you think the cops could at least let the other team know. You know, have the opposing pitcher lob one for Bobby? Nope, they’re completely in the dark. Bobby never attempts to tell the opposing pitcher either he just yells at him to throw it.
The moment comes and Bobby cranks one into deep center field… Only to watch the ball bounce of the railing and fall back into the playing field. Bobby tries to run for an in-the-park home run, but is called out at home. Bobby insists he’s safe until he realizes the umpire is Gil in disguise. Woah, woah, woah. Let me take a minute to catch my breath.
You’re saying not only did a wanted man sneak into the stadium, he snuck onto the field as the umpire? Also, I thought he wanted Bobby to hit a home run. Why would he call him out? This leads to Gil speaking to the crowd via big screen about being responsible for Bobby’s success. Cops swarm the field and Gil tells Bobby, he’s going to show him his best pitch. We see Gil is preparing to throw a knife and he is shot down. The cops find Sean hiding in a storage unit where Gil was living and the film ends.
Wow, that escalated… quickly. It’s a shame because the first half is kind of a slow burning mystery. “How will these two people cross paths?” “What does Gil have planned?” Until it shifts into a completely unbelievable action movie where a struggling knife salesman is now a Lethal Weapon villain. It’s too bad because De Niro gives what might be his best creepy guy performance after Cape Fear. Snipes is good too, as is the entire cast. The movie is just so, well, stupid.
I think the main problem is the film is bigger than it needs to be. I’m aware of the expenses like filming in stadiums and on San Francisco highways with lush orange skies, but the actual struggle is small. This is a story about a man who wants to live in the past, who wants to remember the greats of yesteryear, afraid of the changing times and trends. Why not explore this on a smaller, more cerebral scale? The film Big Fan comes to mind. Which is a much better film about the dangers of obsession toward sports.
Nonetheless, I find the experience entertaining off and on despite its nearly two-hour run time and formulaic pattern. Hey, what I just said could also be said about baseball. Maybe I can enjoy this season after all. All I have to do is follow the Bobby Rayburn mindset, stop caring. Also, avoid knife salesmen.