What do you say about a twenty-four-year-old track star who died? If he's Steve Prefontaine, the long-distance runner who competed at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and held several American records, the answer is "plenty," Without Limits is the second film, following 1997's Prefontaine (a box-office flop), to tell the story of the Oregon rebel — Pre to pals — with a passion for starting a race up front and staying there.
Stifle that yawn. Prefontaine (with Jared Leto) was a dry retread of sports clichés. Without Limits, co-produced by top gun Tom Cruise ("I feel the need, the need for speed"), has the smarts to dig deeper. Director Robert Towne (Personal Best), who cowrote the script with Pre pal Kenny Moore, catches the sinewy poetry of these bodies in motion without neglecting the mental process that reveals character.
As Pre, Billy Crudup is dynamite — a magnetic star presence who's unafraid to show how Pre's drive also makes him a bit of a prick. Crudup's exemplary stage work (Arcadia, Bus Stop) has overshadowed his lesser screen roles (Sleepers, Inventing the Abbotts). No more. This film puts Crudup in the front ranks of his acting generation. And Donald Sutherland brims with wit and canny surprises in an award-caliber performance as Bill Bowerman, Pre's hardass coach at the University of Oregon. Bowerman, who started the Nike line by patterning running shoes after his wife's waffle iron, thinks hanging back and sussing out the competition is the key to racing and to "that other absurd pastime — life." Pre, on the other hand, would rather lose than give up his lead. Towne, whose Chinatown script remains a model of the form, has a keen eye, be it for the delicacy of Pre's sexually limited romance with a Catholic girl (Monica Potter) or the stabbing pain of Pre's defeat at Munich. Towne defines Pre not by the freak car accident that killed him but by his willful need to keep on pushing. It's Pre's defiant spirit that makes Without Limits something worth cheering.