All sports movies, to some extent, pay homage to those transcendent moments in which an act of will takes an athlete beyond what was imagined possible. There's no purer expression of this than long-distance running, because a race distills everything to what the human body can endure, unaided by the dumb luck of hail-mary passes and buzzer shots. All of which explains the existence of two competing bio-pics about Steve "Pre" Prefontaine, the undersized and overachieving University of Oregon track star who shattered American records in the early 1970s before dying in a car accident at 24. Hoop Dreams director Steve James was the first to the stripe with last year's tepid Prefontaine, which robbed the story of dramatic impact with its awkward, pseudo-documentary approach. Far more rousing is Without Limits, the third and most accomplished film directed by legendary Hollywood screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown). With a self-assurance that mirrors his hero's, Towne never strains for effect, justifiably confident that his polished staging and wry, sneaky wit will be enough to give resonance to Pre's life. In a role originally intended for Tom Cruise, Billy Crudup (Inventing The Abbotts, Sleepers) plays "the James Dean of sport" as a man by turns cocky, enigmatic, and genuinely inspired. Better still is Donald Sutherland as Oregon coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, whose ongoing philosophical tête-à-tête with Pre is the most fascinating aspect of the film. Without Limits glosses over the political turbulence in Pre's life, particularly the tragedy at the 1972 Munich Games, and his romance with fellow runner Mary Marckx (Con Air's Monica Potter) is charming but undernourished. Though these flaws take little away from Towne's beautifully crafted film, Without Limits has been inexplicably mistreated by its distributor, pushed back for months and then quietly shuffled into theaters. Towne will share exactly none of the embarrassment when it flops.