SOMETIMES AN ACTOR AND A ROLE can fit too snugly. One thinks of Robin Williams inhabiting a 10-year-old's body in ""Jack'': sure, he's good at it, but the casting is so inevitable you feel you've already seen it. Watching Robert De Niro become progressively unhinged in _B_The Fan_b_ is like shuffling through an album of ""Bobby's Greatest Hits.'' The delusional knife salesman Gil Renard, who becomes dangerously obsessed with San Francisco Giants superstar Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes), is a blatant amalgam of ""Taxi Driver's'' Travis Bickle, ""The King of Comedy's'' Rupert Pupkin, the rage-filled father in ""This Boy's Life'' and crazy Max Cady in ""Cape Fear.'' You get the picture: this fan is one sick, pathetic puppy, and sooner or later he's going to turn on his idol.
De Niro brings all his mulish intensity to the part, but casting him was probably a mistake. We're scared of Gil long before we're supposed to be. The echo of all those other performances removes any sense of discovery: we know he's on a one-way road to psychosis, and we know what it's going to look like. But the truth is, Tony Scott's hollow thriller would have defeated any actor. It's polyester pretending to be cotton: a character study with no real interest in character, a suspense movie too synthetic to generate genuine fear.
What's disingenuous about Scott's movie is that it pretends to have something to say about an all-too-familiar syndrome -- the worshipful celebrity fan whose spurned love turns lethal. It's cashing in on our disturbing memories of Monica Seles, Selena, Rebecca Schaeffer, John Lennon. The script (by Phoef Sutton, from a Peter Abrahams novel) dutifully checks off the ""motives'' that turn Gil all too neatly from an overwrought guy into a raving psycho: the bitter ex-wife who doesn't want him to see their kid, the awful boss who takes his job away, the pathetic dreams of baseball glory he clings to. But such ""psychological'' signposts are merely window dressing once the dumb and implausible plot kicks in. When Gil snaps, committing a murder to help his slumping idol and then stalking him for a sign of gratitude, we're playing by ""Friday the 13th'' rules, and there's nothing De Niro and the appealing Snipes can do to save it.
Scott, the flashy director of ""Top Gun,'' ""Days of Thunder'' and ""Crimson Tide,'' has no patience for, nor interest in, reality (or baseball, for that matter). As usual, he pours meaningless style over every scene -- no one shoots the milky light from a Venetian blind better -- but to what end? Instead of pulling you deeper into the narrative, Scott's striking, insistent images and hyper-crosscutting dissipate any emotional involvement. By the time it reaches its cuckoo climax on a rain-drenched baseball field, where poor Rayburn thinks he has to hit a home run to save his kidnapped little boy's life, ""The Fan'' might as well be taking place on Mars.