Running man

The legend of Pre.

To the uninitiated, it's hard to explain the impact of distance runner Steve Prefontaine.

It's not just that the University of Oregon star profiled in Robert Towne's new movie, Without Limits, once held all US track records from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters. "Pre" was a working-class kid in a suburban sport; a shaggy-haired nonconformist who challenged the hypocrisy of amateur athletics. His desperate last-lap dash in the 1972 Olympic 5,000 final exhausted him and left him in fourth place, but his all-or-nothing spirit inspired a generation of young track and cross-country runners. Pre died tragically on the very day he won a prestigious invitational meet—and just a year away from his chance at Olympic redemption.

Without Limits

directed by Robert Towne

starring Billy Crudup, Donald Sutherland

opens Friday at Metro, others

If this already sounds like the stuff of Hollywood glory, director Towne goes his material one better. The Prefontaine (Billy Crudup) of Without Limits is Michael Jordan and Superman rolled into one: movie-star handsome, supremely confident, a hit with the ladies (but always drawn back to soulmate Mary), and a killer on the track. He's tempered by an even bigger force, coach Bill Bowerman, architect of the nation's top collegiate track program and determined seeker after the perfect running shoe (he later created a company to market his homemade prototypes—Nike). As played by Donald Sutherland, Bowerman is a cross between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader—an enigmatic shaman brimming with insights about the science of winning, whose philosophy collides with Pre's fanatical determination to run full-out all the time. And Mary (Monica Potter) is a beautiful innocent who can't quite figure out what makes Pre so driven, but loves him just the same.

Throw in some of the best re-creations of track running ever filmed and the deft editing of live action with historical footage in the 1972 Munich Olympics sequences, and you've got a matchless package. By comparison, it's easy to see why last year's Disney cheapie on the same topic (Prefontaine) was such a flop. It wasn't just inferior production values that sunk that effort—it was the writers' decision to depict Pre as a whiny braggart plagued by self-doubt. Perhaps that version was closer to the truth, but Without Limits brings us the hero we want—an irascible, attractive, irresistible force of nature. Without Limits could single-handedly revive the Pre phenomenon and have a generation of kids ditching touchdown dances and power dunks to practice that arms-outstretched break-the-tape track finish. Go for the gold, kids!

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