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Review: Track film 'Without Limits' light on its feet

Web posted on: Thursday, September 24, 1998 2:34:49 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- It's real easy to mess up a sports movie. Filmmakers have a tendency to build a trap for themselves by thinking that the excitement of a "big game" (or a "big match" or a "big tournament") will readily translate to the screen, even though they're staging something that's most exhilarating when you see it unfolding in swift, unchoreographed movements right there in front of you.

Admittedly, sometimes it works. Even if your movie pays off with a first-class showdown at the end, though, you still have all that pesky film to fill up before you get to the knockout punch.

Theatrical preview for "Without Limits"

Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

Too often, movie audiences can tell exactly where they're heading just by noticing what kind of athletic equipment is lying around on the locker room floor. The secret is to give them what they think they want (without bowing to them; it's your movie after all), but also to make sure that they understand the psychological and emotional makeup of the athlete who's doing all that striving. "Rocky," for example, doesn't work as well as it does simply because people like to watch boxing. (Of course, Hollywood only figured this out by releasing three or four mega-bomb boxing movies the year after "Rocky" won the Oscar.)

"Without Limits" -- Robert Towne's new film about the late, legendarily gifted long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine -- definitely has its problems, but it's still one of the best sports movies I've ever seen. Towne (a renowned screenwriter who, until now, has never really cut it as a director) has always had an interest in track and field, and his passion for it is fully apparent this time out. (His other track movie, 1982's "Personal Best," is nowhere near as successful.)

The movie's power lies in the fact that Towne is far more concerned with the workings of Prefontaine's head than he is with the more mundane matter of his stride. Yes, you get those "big races," but an important chunk of the film focuses on the idea that the best race "Pre" ever ran was one that he lost. This is not how it worked in "Major League." Or "Major League II." Or "Major League III."

A lot of people thought Prefontaine was an egotistical self-promoter, but I'm not buying that. And Towne doesn't buy it, either.

Billy Crudup stars as Prefontaine, a record-breaking runner at the University of Oregon in the 1970s who willfully (some say recklessly) pushed himself beyond the limits of human endurance during his races.

Prefontaine couldn't accept the concept that a runner was doing his job if he laid back and waited for the moment near the end of the heat when it was wise to kick into high gear and leave the pack behind. He really didn't care about the other runners.

Instead, he saw running as a "work of art," an opportunity to test himself and take his (eventually fawning) audience for the ride of its life. The catch is that a lot of people thought he was also an egotistical self-promoter, but I'm not buying that. And Towne doesn't buy it, either.

Any real artist will tell you that worrying about other people's reactions to what you're doing is the antithesis of what art is all about. Art is self-expression, and Prefontaine's form of self-expression was running. The movie is really about one man's unwavering belief in himself, but Towne doesn't turn the struggle into a Wal-Mart-ready version of my favorite movie-theme whipping-boy, "the triumph of the human spirit."

No prepackaged emotions here

The audience's bargain-basement expectations are scuttled several times during the film. Prefontaine's story is ultimately a tragic one, and an overproduced R&B singer (or, God forbid, Bette Midler) doesn't belt out a song about "spreading your wings" over the end credits. Towne expects you to think for yourself a little bit, a movie industry stunt that's far easier to pull off when your film is produced by your best friend, whose name happens to be Tom Cruise.

It's understandable why Cruise originally planned to play Prefontaine himself. It's also clear why Crudup gives a far more interesting performance than Mr. Top Gun probably could have managed.

Cruise would have viewed Prefontaine's obsession as an ego-juicing "you wait and see." A culminating "big race," in one form or another, would have been unavoidable. He's already played the world's cockiest fighter pilot, bartender, pool player, race car driver, lawyer, agent, vampire (not exactly the same thing as a lawyer), etc. Why not a cocky long-distance runner, too?

Crudup, on the other hand, doesn't have all that movie star baggage to lug along with him, so he draws us into that obsession without making it seem like he's gearing us up for a huge Moment Of Glory.

The glory is in Pre doing the job as perfectly as possible (and as gracefully -- Crudup looks great during the races) without being distracted by the outside world, which consists mostly of an underwritten girlfriend (Monica Potter) and an oddly written coach (played as far too understanding by Donald Sutherland.)

Supporting characters a little weak

This is where the movie stumbles, although not to a degree that lessens the impact of Prefontaine's willful spirit. The coach, Bill Bowerman, is a track and field legend in his own right (the shoes we see him painstakingly making for his runners throughout the movie were the beginnings of a little company he founded called Nike). Sutherland's voiceover at the beginning of the film strongly implies that what we're about to watch is a battle of wills, but Towne is too respectful of Prefontaine's focus to take that very far.

There is a bunch of understated bickering between the coach and his star runner. It's not a big deal, though, when Pre ignores the coach's strategy and sets another record. Even when he eventually comes to terms with Bowerman's tactics and sets a new standard for himself, it's viewed as another hard-headed victory for Steve rather than the combined accomplishment of two very different men.

The final image, a lap-dissolve in which Prefontaine and Bowerman appear in the frame together, suggests that Towne was shooting for something that never really made it to the screen. What's there, though, is surprisingly humanistic and often very inspiring. It's one of the best movies of the year.

"Without Limits" contains bad language and one rather silly scene of sexual abandon. The track meets are tremendously well done; you can feel the runners grasping for one last edge before they make their breaks for the finish line. Running in circles around a track is not the most cinematic activity in the world, so this is no small achievement on Towne's part. Rated PG-13. 117 minutes. If it all seems a bit single-minded at times, that's not a failing. It's about single-mindedness.

Warner Bros., a Time Warner property, is a sister company to CNN Interactive.

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