For Robert Towne, the milestone of scripting Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) has become an impossible act to follow. Towne's subsequent projects as a director – including Personal Best (1982) and Tequila Sunrise (1988) – have a workman-like modesty that invariably disappoints all those film buffs and aspiring screenwriters who have made such a fetish of Chinatown's achievement.
Even Towne's crack at a long-nurtured sequel to his classic – in The Two Jakes (1990), directed by Jack Nicholson – turned into a major career disaster.
Towne's latest as director and co-writer, Without Limits, is unquestionably his most impressive effort to date as a fledgling auteur. It will be a shame if this understated marvel slips through cinemas quickly, for it is a memorable and moving testament to an American sports legend.
Steve Prefontaine (Billy Crudup) had a tragically short career as a runner. Towne lightly gives this life story the elegiac, melancholic quality of Weir's Gallipoli (1981): the historic ending, known in advance by most members of the audience, subtly shadows everything that leads to it. Primarily, it is a kind of displaced father-son story – with testy coach Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland) figuring as the exacting, parental influence.
Towne has managed to respect many of the conventions of the sports biopic, all the while quietly altering its typical mood and structure. This is not an adrenalin-pumping, melodramatic, tearingly vulgar show in the vein of Blue Chips (1994) or Slap Shot (1977). It boasts plenty of laughs, confrontations and track thrills, but the tone is fundamentally different.
Without Limits is, in many respects, the companion piece to Towne's earlier sports movie, Personal Best. Where that concentrated on women, this looks at men. Both films circumvent the typical feel-good hooks of the Hollywood sports genre, replacing gung-ho narrative drive with a more diffuse texture. Towne's newfound mastery of a constantly and pleasingly varied pace, rhythm, sound design and visual style often evokes a minor-key Scorsese.
Both of Towne's sports films explore intriguing and unique questions of what it means for professionals of all ages to achieve their best, to compete with others and with themselves, to work within and against bodily and institutional limits. Towne creates a tone poem from the sporting genre's most profound, philosophical issue: what it means to exist in the moment, and how that moment defines or even redeems an entire lifetime, however brief.
Towne's grasp of the poignancy of each moment in this story makes credible and effective even the scene in which Bowerman hits upon the idea for naming and marketing his new shoe, the Nike – the rough equivalent to those corny moments in old Hollywood biopics in which composers start suddenly whistling their most famous tune, or inventors stumble upon earth-shattering discoveries with the cry of "Eureka!".
Filmgoers have had, over the past two decades, too many opportunities to forget what a truly fine actor Sutherland is. He has slid into becoming a solid, sometimes quirky character player, gracing many small, undistinguished movies with his seemingly effortless work.
Without Limits gives Sutherland one of the outstanding roles of his career. With a growl of his voice, the curl of an eyebrow or a subtle stiffening of his posture, Sutherland can inject irony, humour and tension into the slightest exchange with Prefontaine. The detailed, mercurial rapport between Sutherland and Crudup is magic to behold, and a model of what is entailed in directing actors for the screen.
© Adrian Martin July 1999