It’s the paradigmatic pop cult tale of the last half of the 20th century: the guileless hayseed attaining popular godhood by virtue of unschooled talent and iron will, and all too soon ending up a good-looking corpse thanks to Fame, the System, or just plain Fate. It’s as old as the tire tracks James Dean left on Highway 41, but as Robert Towne’s Without Limits proves, it is by now a story without purpose or resonance, and one whose climactic car or plane crash has the pointless abruptness of Monty Python’s old 16-ton weight.
Who cares about a rock star or athlete if the only thing distinguishing him or her is an early grave? For the second time in as many years, we have a solemn requiem for Steve Prefontaine, a young runner who broke loads of records, failed to win any medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and then died tragically in a highway wreck, all of 24 good-looking years old. While Steve James’s Prefontaine is easily the more amateurish and shamelessly teary-eyed, Towne’s slick treatment confirms the suspicion that Prefontaine’s life wasn’t quite interesting enough for one film, much less two. He didn’t even place at the Olympics, fer Chrissake, and when all the eulogies are said and done, you can’t be blamed for thinking all that time and energy would’ve been more fruitfully spent tracking the travails of the Finnish cop who did win.
Towne can be an expressive filmmaker when he wants to be, and Without Limits is visually eloquent about the process and strategies of distance running. But the scenario is no less clichéd for being true: Pre (Billy Crudup) outruns everybody, goes to college and meets Yoda-like coach Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland, looking a tad too Mephistophelian), woos virginal coed Monica Potter, ascends to fame and notoriety (mostly for his no-holds-barred style of running), and eventually gets his fire dampened at the ’72 Munich Olympics, where the kidnapping and slaughter of the Israeli track team somehow spoiled Pre’s chances of winning. Towne spends all of two minutes on the terrorism, never explaining sufficiently why Pre finished fourth when, if you believe the film, he’d never lost a race before in his life. (He lost plenty.)
Where can a movie like this go except straight into a brick wall? Of course he dies in the end, saints preserve us, and everybody goes to the track for a funeral that’s clocked like a mile-run. Towne tries to wax philosophical, imagining the Bowerman-vs.-Pre debate as a struggle between goal-oriented reason and Ayn Randian individualism, but the cloud of preordained doom hangs heavily over the action. The inclusion of several veiled gay pickup scenes between Crudup and Sutherland, one of them in a sauna, is baffling at best. Crudup, to his credit, doesn’t play a character so much as find interesting little things to do amid the beautifully photographed crap around him. What if Pre had lived, and won the gold in ’76? Where’s The Bruce Jenner Story?