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Ron Shelton and Kevin Costner had been wanting to make sports-movie magic again, after the almost celestial alignment of sexuality and talent that made Bull Durham such a delight and unleashed Costner, baby-faced Tim Robbins, and the gloriously ripe Susan Sarandon, sex object for thinking grown-ups, as well as Shelton himself, on the world. In the meantime, Shelton went on to make excellent (White Men Can’t Jump), woefully underrated (Blaze), and fairly lousy (um, Cobb) films, and Costner became a vain (Dances With Wolves), bloated (Waterworld) Hollywood dickweed with a few notable projects (Silverado, The Untouchables) under his belt.

As written by Shelton and first-time screenwriter John Norville, Tin Cup is the perfect script for their reunion, the perfect role to help Costner deny his puffed-up post-Waterworld reputation, and—as hoped—the best project either man has worked on since Bull Durham. Structurally, it’s a lot like its slobbo cousin, Kingpin: Costner plays Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy, a semi-washed-up golf pro with his own two-bit driving range in a desolate stretch of West Texas. Living out of a Winnebago with his best friend, Romeo (Cheech Marin), he spends his days alternating swigs of whiskey and antacid and spouting spiritual and/or faux-macho golf aphorisms for the occasional paying customer.

When his longtime rival, a slick darling of the people named David Simms (Don Johnson, very good when he relaxes) shows up with an offer to let his old pal caddie for him, McAvoy resentfully takes it, keeping his eye on the big prize—the U.S. Open, sort of, but mostly Simms’ psychologist girlfriend, Molly Griswold (Rene Russo).

Shelton may be the best women’s director working; he has exquisite taste—Sarandon, Lolita Davidovich, Rosie Perez—and he likes them as smart, saucy, and individual as they are beautiful. And Russo is insanely beautiful, even when she’s suiting up in a variety of complicated, “game-improving” paraphernalia in preparation for her first lesson. Naturally, McAvoy—the archetypal sexy, dissatisfied near-loser with a talent for charm and zero follow-through—scoffs at Dr. Griswald’s plastic defenses. “Waggle it [the club] and let the big dog eat,” he tells her, and the bantering, the push-pull, the limpid, lingering looks begin.

Tin Cup’s script has no use for the Ken Burns school of sports as holy allegory; Shelton and Norville toss around motivational Zen metaphors and pumped-up sports poetry because they’re an inextricable part of the game, even if they’re useless. Shelton is wryly aware of the real ingredients of a great game—the balance between years of meticulous fine tuning and moments of slapdash luck. He doesn’t bother to impress upon viewers that golf per se is important; he makes the game matter to characters who matter to the audience. He’s got solid old-fashioned (and increasingly archaic) editing skills, and he keeps the plays on the boil, building and deflating tension like a master, always letting us see what he means us to see.

Shelton has also brought Costner back down to earth; here, he’s humble and stubbly and wildly sexy, bumping around his crummy Winnebago in one of any number of soft open shirts. His McAvoy has slightly fancy language, and he speaks in long sentences, like a cowboy poet with a solid grounding in 19th-century literature. Tin Cup is all unforced charm with occasional harsh notes; no one here is so heroic that he won’t indulge in some petty tyranny or selfish tantrum to get his way, and Dr. Griswold isn’t the cool, upscale professional she appears to be. “I should never have gotten out of real estate,” she sighs, flustered, after McAvoy gorgeously confesses his feelings. She goes on to babble haltingly, waving a doughnut, about the overrated joys of Amarillo and genuine cowboys, while McAvoy tries to keep his surprise under control.

His look of wonder when confronted with this woman is swooningly romantic, even if he is a little thick on the intention of her colorful backtalk. He listens with delight when she offers a sassy, bluish metaphorical prescription for “what he needs,” involving a crop and saddle. “What kind of saddle?” he calls after her, a raucous mix of lust and confusion clouding his face. There are more balls and brass—and brass balls—in this smart, stylish film than in any number of soppy so-called “date movies.” Even the climactic sequence set at the U.S. Open has believable treats in store, in which winning really does become a moot point, and the hero learns an absurd, circular lesson: The very impetuousness that made golf greatness impossible for him may be his essential quality, and sometimes we’re better off being who we are than doing what we do best.

Tony Scott’s ultrapredictable stalker flick, The Fan, moves with such rigid methodicism from creepy point A to bloody point B that about a third of the audience leapt out of its seats at the first sight of restorative point C; having assured themselves that The Fan had hit all its marks, they had nothing to stick around for. Scott doesn’t bother injecting any originality into this by-the-numbers script (by Phoef Sutton, based on Peter Abrahams’ book); everything in the movie can be seen elsewhere, everywhere. Such niceties as there are—atmosphere, story surprises, clever uses of language—are scant and perfunctory, and barely raise the movie’s quality above that of a well-financed Lifetime original drama.

Robert De Niro plays Gil Renard, a rabid San Francisco Giants fan who holds down a day job as, conveniently enough, a knife salesman. Not only do the knives lend themselves to much stylish psycho swordplay, but without the expediency of a gun, the plot moves slowly enough to fill out its requisite two hours. Didn’t Chekhov say something about if you introduce a suitcase full of knives in the first act, Robert De Niro will inevitably play a stalker? Something like that.

Fired from his job because “you’re scaring people, Gil,” as his hardass boss (Dan Butler, a welcome and underused presence on the big screen) puts it, prevented from seeing his son because the ex-wife (Patti D’Arbanville-Quinn) and her nice but meatheaded new guy (Chris Mulkey) don’t like the way Gil teaches the kid to play with blades and harangues him with motivational baseball couplets, Gil sinks into depression. Soon he’s moping around his apartment, living only to make fervid calls to a local sports radio DJ (Ellen Barkin) and to fling knives into walls—in other words, intensive psycho training. He becomes increasingly obsessed with Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes), a local hero who was spirited away by the Braves, only to return to San Francisco with a .310 batting average and a $40-million contract.

But Rayburn’s game goes sour, and the city turns against him. He’s arrogant and mentally blocked—he can’t wear his old number, which is being worn by the Giants’ bad-boy pitcher, Juan Primo (Benicio Del Toro, sporting not only a crepe goatee but what looks to be an obvious wig). If Gil could make Rayburn’s game all right, maybe Gil’s own life would get back on track. But how…?

By now, De Niro has stalked so many people while wearing a cavalcade of loud shirts and ties I can’t believe the few victims left don’t see him coming. And if they can’t tell from the weird ties or the Giants watch or the warehouse full of helmets swinging eerily from the ceiling and a collection of menacing little bobbing-head Giants dolls, perhaps they could pick up some clues from his performance, by now a film standard. De Niro gave up the mantle of “greatest actor of his generation” two decades ago, although a lazy press is content to offer knee-jerk surprise when he appears in a string of unchallenging, uninteresting films. But stalkers—especially the vengeful, creepily perfectionist variety De Niro prefers—by definition share a psychology, so his impersonation of that type never varies beyond the externals. The Fan depends on various unforgiving Nine Inch Nails songs to pass for Gil’s psychology, while the character himself is purported to be a Stones fan. Irony or laziness? It’s hard to tell.

Maybe it isn’t possible to make a great baseball movie anymore. Any director who tried (Scott doesn’t) would have to make the game matter to the audience again, and next to pared-down, fast-moving sports like basketball or beach volleyball it just looks frumpy. The last really engaging one, Bull Durham, succeeded because the phrase “minor-league” resonates even if “baseball” doesn’t. But if Ron Shelton can bring sex and splash to golf and evade its reputation for geek-chic—the sport does have some pretty cute clothes if you shop carefully—surely The Fan could have been a better movie, De Niro, diamond, and all. The essential difference between the two films isn’t one of subject, but engagement; one director cares, the other doesn’t.CP