Robin’s Underrated Gems: Without Limits (1998)

It’s not uncommon for Hollywood to release multiple movies with similar subject matter during the same time period, but for whatever reason, this seemed to happen with great frequency during 1997-98. It was here when you’d often see competing studios release separate movies within a few months of each other that just happened to have similar story ideas, whether it be about volcanoes (Dante’s Peak and Volcano), end-of-the-world disasters (Deep Impact and Armageddon) or animated insects (Antz and A Bug’s Life). However, the most curious coincidence during this time period was when two separate studios decided to greenlight a biopic about 1970s American long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine. This seemed like a pretty bizarre and random decision, considering that modern audiences probably didn’t have any idea who Steve Prefontaine was, and that his life lacked the big triumphant, career-defining moment that most Hollywood sports pictures require. The first of these biopics to be released was Prefontaine, directed by Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame and starring Jared Leto in the title role. It received mixed reviews and did poorly at the box office, which caused the second Prefontaine biopic to have its release date delayed by a year. This project was originally entitled Pre, but after it became obvious that Steve Prefontaine’s name didn’t equate to box office dollars, the title was changed to the more generic-sounding Without Limits. In spite of the fact that it was produced by Tom Cruise (who considered playing Prefontaine until deciding he was too old) and directed by one of the most renowned screenwriters of all time, Robert Towne, Without Limits got a very limited theatrical release and didn’t do much better at the box office than Prefontaine did. Sadly, the film just seemed to be a victim of bad luck and timing, which is a shame because Without Limits turned out to be a far superior biopic and a damn fine sports movie to boot.

While Steve Prefontaine (or “Pre”, as he was nicknamed) may not be a household name today, he was arguably one of the most popular athletes in North America during his peak. In the early 1970s, Pre single-handedly put the sport of track-and-field on the map as his competitive, charismatic personality and knack for shattering long-distance track records made him a very popular sports figure before he was suddenly killed in a car accident at the age of 24 in 1975. You can’t really classify Without Limits as an underdog sports movie because, well, Steve Prefontaine was no underdog. At the beginning of the film, Pre (Billy Crudup) has built up such a sterling reputation as a long-distance runner that many colleges are attempting to recruit him, but he chooses to enrol at the University of Oregon to train under renowned track coach Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland). Pre is so far ahead of all the other long-distance runners in the country and his talent so immense that he develops a cocky attitude that rubs many people the wrong way. He has a very aggressive and competitive nature that will not allow him to give anything less than his very best while running a race. In his very first race at Oregon, Pre obliterates the competition by instantly breaking away from the pack to set a new state record, which immediately turns him into a crowd favourite. However, Coach Bowerman is not impressed by his performance. Pre’s obvious goal is to win a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, but Bowerman tries to teach him that even though his aggressive approach can easily win him races in Oregon, it may not bring him success once he competes on an international stage.

The relationship between Pre and Bowerman is the heart of Without Limits, and one of the main reasons I consider it to be a superior film to the previous Steve Prefontaine biopic. While Prefontaine was certainly a decent and enjoyable enough film, it often came across as a bland, generic made-for-TV movie. Possibly due to the fact that Steve James was a professional documentarian and wasn’t used to directing fiction films, Prefontaine‘s narrative was presented in a half-story, half-faux documentary format. This approach prevented the story from being as involving as it could have been and the interesting relationship between Pre and Bowerman kind of got short-changed. Without Limits is definitely more of a traditional, old-fashioned sport film than Prefontaine, but that does work to its benefit. Of course, one of the main reasons that Without Limits works so well is because of the stellar direction of Robert Towne. Even though Towne’s screenwriting career spans many decades and has won him an Academy Award and multiple nominations, he has only directed four films. In 1982, he made his directorial debut with Personal Best, an equally underrated sports drama (and future “Robin’s Underrated Gems” candidate) about two female teammates on the U.S. track-and-field team who become lesbian lovers. Personal Best garnered a lot of praise for its realistic depiction of the world of track-and-field and Towne did a masterful job at turning the film’s athletic competition sequences into compelling cinema. Without Limits further demonstrates that no one is better at directing track-and-field than Robert Towne. The film’s big centrepiece is when Pre competes in the 5000-meter race at the Olympics and even though you know how it’s going to turn out, the sequence is so masterfully put together than you still find yourself on the edge of your seat.

While the teacher-student relationship between Pre and Bowerman might seem like something you’ve seen in a dozen other sports movies, the strong performances from Billy Crudup and Donald Sutherland help make it feel fresh. It’s commendable that both of the Prefontaine biopics never shied away from the fact that Pre could be a cocky, moody primadonna at times, Crudup perfectly balances the line between showcasing Pre’s arrogance and still remaining likable at the same time. Sutherland also does a terrific job at showing the fine line Bowerman walks between antagonism and compassion while attempting to guide Pre. It’s also worth noting that Without Limits was co-written by Towne and Kenny Moore (played in the film by future Twilight star Billy Burke), who was one of Pre’s teammates and actually had a substantial acting role in Personal Best. It’s likely that Moore’s first-hand perspective helped the screenplay a lot, because even though this is a conventional sports story at heart, nothing in the film really feels false. Without Limits to much better reviews than Prefontaine did, but it was painfully obvious that it didn’t matter much since audiences just weren’t all that interested in Steve Prefontaine’s story and probably still didn’t know he was. And those who did know Prefontaine’s story probably questioned the logic in making a film about him since the story would not have a happy ending and essentially didn’t even have a climax. How could you make a sports film about a guy whose life was cut short before he got achieve his main goal? However, I think that’s what sets Without Limits apart from most films in this genre in that it’s quite unique to see a sports story where the hero’s most disappointing professional moment is also his greatest triumph. The film perfectly demonstrates that there are just so many different factors prevalent in emerging victorious in the world of competition. Even those who are cynical about these types of stories and still have no idea who Steve Prefontaine is should give Without Limits a shot as it remains one of the more underrated sports movies of all time.

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