Retroactive Review: The Fan (1996)

Despite its absurdity, The Fan does relay a message of empathy, even if unintentionally.

When one thinks of sports movies—baseball, in particular—the movies that come to mind are often serious, staid biopics or documentaries. Or bawdy, goofy, screwball comedies like Bull Durham, the popular Major League franchise, Rookie of the Year, and Bad News Bears, just to name a few. The discerning sports-film connoisseur probably can count the number of baseball-related thrillers on one hand. For this article, Retroactive Review is going to take a look at one of those rare thrillers.

Tony Scott’s baseball thriller, The Fan, based on the novel of the same name by Peter Abraham, takes a look at the dark side of sports fandom, chronicling the descent of a disturbed knife salesman into revenge, obsession, and murder. Legendary actor Robert De Niro—best known at the time for dramatic, award-nominated roles in films like The Godfather franchise, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, and Raging Bull—stars as troubled knife-salesman Gil Renard. Action star Wesley Snipes co-stars as the unfortunate ballplayer who draws Renard’s ire, superstar Bobby Rayburn. 

Renard, who’s recently suffered a divorce, is a man on the brink of disaster at the opening of The Fan. Renard is still squabbling with his ex-wife, Ellen, and her new husband over visitation of their young son. His behavior also negatively impacts his job performance, leading to dissatisfaction with his employers. Renard displays volatile, explosive tendencies as he picks fights with his ex and her husband, and terrifies the son caught in the middle. Renard is also shown to be impulsive and irresponsible, taking his son to a baseball game and then leaving him at the ballpark when he realizes he forgot he had an appointment with his boss. This incident ruptures his already fragile custody arrangement with Ellen, leading his ex-wife to bar him from seeing their son. 

In the midst of Renard’s personal turmoil, he starts fixating on the San Francisco Giants’ star, Bobby Rayburn. Rayburn, a newly acquired outfielder, starts struggling after injuring himself in an outfield collision with his teammate Juan Primo. Giants fans soon turn on Rayburn, which incenses Renard. After Rayburn starts blaming Primo for his underperformance, the two get into a bar brawl, leading to conflict between Rayburn and his other teammates. Renard, who’s started obsessively keeping tabs on Rayburn, confronts Primo in a sauna and kills him. Rayburn’s play immediately improves after Primo’s death, and he soon is suspected of the crime. 

Renard inserts himself into Rayburn’s life after stalking the ballplayer and his son, conveniently coming to the little boy’s rescue when he almost drowns in a surfing accident. When Rayburn indicates Primo’s murder has changed his priorities, showing him that baseball is “just a game” and no longer the most important thing in his life, Renard turns on his former idol. 

Renard soon devolves into madness and loses touch with reality, culminating in the kidnapping of Rayburn’s son as a substitute for his own. Rayburn is soon forced by Renard to play for his son’s life; if Rayburn hits a homer, he will let his son live. If he fails, Renard will kill the boy. 

Though The Fan is neither particularly good nor exceptionally bad, it’s so chock full of bonkers fun and compelling performances from the stars that the flaws are easy to overlook. (At least if you’re up for a bit of wild, calorie-free fun. If you’re in the mood for baseball fare with more substance, The Fan probably isn’t for you.) 

Though The Fan can’t quite overcome its genre trappings or a somewhat ridiculous finale, it manages to remain fully committed to ratcheting the madness up to 100, and it’s bolstered by strong performances and chemistry from the leads. De Niro is enjoyably weird, bombastic, and disturbing as Renard, while Snipes shows some of his acting chops, as well as charisma in the role of the sports star. Then again, De Niro makes reciting the dictionary compelling, and Snipes is an appealing action hero. The child actor who plays Snipes’ character’s son is also strong, shining in some dramatic cat-and-mouse scenes with De Niro. 

The main problem with the movie is that it doesn’t say anything particularly new or profound about sports or obsession. It mostly just comes off as an excuse to let De Niro chew scenery, which is totally understandable. The movie’s themes, which are somewhat overshadowed/overpowered, center on obsession, perfection, and the dark side of fandom. Despite the fact it’s easy to lose these threads in a film like this one, The Fan does manage to ask some questions that are still pertinent in today’s sporting world.

The superstar ballplayer, Rayburn, deals with losing his passion for the sport in the midst of a season-long slump. Portrayed as jaded, Rayburn soon earns the ire and suspicion of his teammates and fanbase. A somewhat superstitious perfectionist, Rayburn struggles with his new team. To the rapidly devolving Renard, who’s lost access to his son and soon loses his job, Rayburn has lost sight of what really matters. 

In a scene between De Niro and Snipes, Snipes’ character explains his changed worldview following the death of Primo, a teammate whom Rayburn sees as a rival. Prior to Primo’s death, the only thing that mattered to Rayburn was baseball and being the best at it. Now he’s been reminded that baseball isn’t life–that there are more important things in his life, particularly his son.

Renard grows infuriated with the star, having hoped that the murder of Primo would help Rayburn’s career. Worse yet, for Renard, Rayburn doesn’t realize he committed the murder for him and fails to be appropriately grateful. It’s easy for the audience to see Renard has lost his grip on reality.

Yet, despite the absurdity of the situation Renard creates for himself, it’s really not that hard to find echoes of oneself in the character. Surrounded by personal turmoil, Renard wraps himself up in his love of baseball, centering his personality and his own his successes and failures on his favorite ballplayer while the rest of his life collapses around him. When Renard loses his faith in Rayburn, he truly loses everything and lets himself become consumed by his obsession and delusions. 

The Fan is clearly on the far end of the spectrum, as far as sports fandom goes, but it’s actually rather easy to see how a mostly ordinary man goes from a simple fan to full-blown fanatic. And how fandom can become twisted, nurtured by a broken person into an all-consuming four-alarm fire if left unchecked. 

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Perhaps the most important—possibly unintentional—message of The Fan is the importance of empathy and compassion. Renard fails at this because he fails to see Rayburn as a person; rather, he views the star as an object. Rayburn is someone whom Renard projects his own failures onto, especially with regards to their sons. Renard himself is not viewed compassionately or empathetically by those around him; though he’s shown to be a dangerous, unstable individual, over the course of the film, no one reaches out or tries to help him. 

All too often, we forget the athletes we admire on the television, radio, and at the ballpark are human. Prince Fielder caused controversy after the Detroit Tigers’ 2013 postseason loss, stating losing wasn’t “tough” for him because of his kids. Fielder added: “You shouldn’t take your work home with you…I still have to be a father and take care of my kids, so you have to move on.”

Fans immediately lashed out at the star, apparently wanting him to show more regret and self-recrimination, and national writers suggested the team traded him in retaliation for his post-loss remarks. These comments don’t sound all that dissimilar from the comments Rayburn makes to Renard about his priorities having changed since his teammate’s murder.

“All my life, I’ve been working to be the best, trying be a perfectionist,” Rayburn says, in that pivotal scene with Renard on the beach. “And I thought about it, and that’s probably where I made my mistake. When Juan Primo died…that just completely changed the perspective. I mean, come on, let’s get real here. What are we doing? We’re not curing cancer. You know? We’re playing a game. It’s all it is. Just a game. So I stopped caring. I relaxed.”

Rayburn’s newfound perspective actually would be quite refreshing to hear from a contemporary star. Unfortunately for him, to Renard those words are unacceptable. To the fanatic, to stop caring is unforgivable. 

The film, which came out in 1996, also features a cameo from former Phillies star John Kruk and his mullet.

You can find Alexandra Simon ranting about things at @catswithbats, and tweeting about the Tigers on @glasshalffulmer.
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2 years ago

You left out the most absurd part of the film. During the climax, Renard somehow manages to insert himself as the home plate umpire in Rayburn’s game. Rayburn drives a ball to the fence, but just barely misses the homerun. So, instead he attempts to leg out an inside-the-park homerun only to be called out at home by Renard. Yes, some executive in the 90’s green-lit this script.

2 years ago


2 years ago

The novel was top notch. The movie adaptation was very disappointing.
Excellent, thorough review, Alexandra.

Barney Coolio
2 years ago
Reply to  thespunk

I enjoyed the novel and the film. In the novel, the team is the Red Sox, and Bobby is a white, Mickey Mantle type player.