By Owen Gleiberman
Updated August 23, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Robert De Niro has spent so much of his career playing cold-eyed psychotic freaks that you’d think by now he’d have run out of variations. He hasn’t, of course. In The Fan, a stalker thriller that’s the latest piece of De Niro psycho-delia, he has such a fierce and confident presence that he can afford to portray yet another walking time bomb without resorting to gimmicks or frills. De Niro’s Gil Renard, a beaten-down San Francisco salesman, is, at first glance, the soul of middle-aged weariness. Jowly, with graying short hair and a gaze of incipient defeat, he might be Willy Loman’s updated cousin. Except that this is a Willy Loman whose desperation has fermented into paranoia. Gil sells knives for a living — big ones, small ones, all sharp enough to razor through the hair on your arm. Yes, folks, someone has finally made a movie about…a door-to-door knife salesman! As soon as we see Gil fondling those gleaming silver weapons, each photographed in eroticized close-up, we know The Fan is going to be a kind of ominous joke, a countdown to the moment when Gil stops selling his knives and starts using them.

With his repertoire of leers, frowns, and profane sociopathic taunts, Robert De Niro has become modern screen acting’s most gloriously perverse showman. His control-freak hooligans are wired so tight with rage that they’re about to blow. Yet the sicker they are, the more fun De Niro has playing them, and we share, conspiratorially, in his theatrical relish. Here, as in The Untouchables or Cape Fear, De Niro’s performance is a delirious Method turn, a master thespian’s version of a punk exorcism. We keep watching, all right, because we want to see how far he’ll go this time.

Gil fancies himself a perfectionist, but he falls behind in everything he does. He can’t meet the sales levels set by his boss; his palsy-walsy pitch talk is pathetically out of touch in an era of sleek corporate misanthropy. He’s also divorced, with an ex-wife (Patti D’Arbanville-Quinn) who despises him and a son (Andrew J. Ferchland) he can barely relate to. There’s only one thing that gets Gil’s juices flowing: baseball. His beloved San Francisco Giants are about to kick off the new season, and they’ve just spent $40 million to acquire a weapon of their own: Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes), a hot new slugger with an earring, an agent (John Leguizamo), and an attitude of brazen contempt for anything that doesn’t advance his personal franchise.

From the razzle-dazzle opening scene, in which Gil talks to Bobby the hipster jock over a sports talk-radio line as the two barrel through the city in their separate vehicles, it’s clear that director Tony Scott (Crimson Tide) is back to his old tricks — smashing a sequence into spangly ”visual” fragments, fetishizing everything in the manner of a Nike commercial. Yet there’s no denying that Scott is a wizard of the narcotic-flash school. In The Fan, he uses his chromium-edged technique to evoke a dread-saturated consumerist America in which the most beloved institutions have grown mercenary and hard. When Gil, after scrounging scalpers’ tickets for $200, brings his kid to opening day, Scott stages it as a nightmarishly funny parody of a father-son outing, with the game taking on overtones of a fascist rally. Gil’s baseball ”banter” is torturously self-involved — the only way he can communicate with his son is by lecturing — and his anger keeps bursting through the surface. No actor turns profanity into comic poetry the way De Niro does. When Gil swears, it’s so venomous, so obscenely inappropriate, that each four-letter word is like a twinkle of derangement.

De Niro’s performance is scary, funny, even touching. The moment Gil breaks from reality, though, the movie, in slavish imitation of Fatal Attraction, does too. Reeling from his own failure, Gil becomes obsessed with Bobby the baseball star. He spies on Bobby, kills for him, kidnaps his son, punishes him for ”betraying” the game. Snipes’ Bobby is a hotshot slickster who grows more likable as he’s humbled — first by a batting slump, then by Gil’s terror tactics. Yet the all-too-real phenomenon of stalking gets treated with hazy, synthetic, it’s-only-a-movie psychology. The more The Fan turns into a thriller, the less it thrills. The climactic night game, staged in a downpour, generates everything but suspense — it’s so drawn out you may start wishing they’d call the game. Still, when Gil hits Bobby with his ultimate taunt (”Now do you care?”), it’s a chilling echo of the movie Scott got at least halfway on screen, a thriller about an era in which fans idolize their heroes right out of reach. B