This 1998 Steve Prefontaine biopic, written by Prefontaine’s teammate and Sports Illustrated contributor Kenny Moore, was actually the second movie on the subject in the late ’90s. A year and a half earlier, legendary documentary director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie) had put out Prefontaine starring 90s It Boy Jared Leto in the title role. That film, while quite good in this viewer’s eyes, was DOA at the box office. The producers of Without Limits, including Tom Cruise, must have been sweating bullets when their movie debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Directed by award-winning screenplay writer Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo, Greystoke), Without Limits entrusts Billy Crudup with the role of America’s running idol. Crudup has been very good in things like Almost Famous and The Hi-Lo Country, but as Steve Prefontaine he’s truly horrible. It must be tough to play someone both famously brash and famously sullen, but Crudup plays it with a bizarrely childlike affectation. It feels like a really shallow performance, which is thankfully rescued by Donald Sutherland in the role of Oregon coach (and later Nike magnate) Bill Bowerman. I have no idea if it’s historically accurate, but Sutherland brings his usual smarmy edge to the role… even injecting a bit of creepy gym teacher into the part. Spread throughout the film are three exchanges, particularly one about proper pelvic positioning, between Sutherland and Crudup that seem like they are about to degenerate into sodomy right there in the middle of practice. If screenwriter Moore hadn’t been a personal acquintance of the two main characters I wonder if Sutherland’s portrayal would have drawn objections from the running community. Instead he received a Supporting Actor Golden Globe nomination.
The running scenes in Without Limits are both credible and inspiring, and Towne does a good job in recreating the atmosphere of a time when distance runners were American sports celebrities. There are fun cameos by marathon legend Frank Shorter and broadcaster Charlie Jones as TV commentators. (It’s actually a reunion for the duo, who played race announcers 16 years earlier in Towne’s track and field gem Personal Best.) Shorter’s participation in the movie is interesting, in that the Without Limits (like the earlier Prefontaine) pretty much glosses over the alcohol aspect of Prefontaine’s driving death and centres his fateful drive around Shorter’s nagging of Prefontaine to give him an early ride home from a party.
Personally I preferred 1997’s Prefontaine, but Without Limits was the better critically and commercially received of the two and is worth a rental for sure. It’s widely available wherever you rent or buy DVDs.