02/10/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
Jared Leto, R. Lee Ermey
Unlike most sports movies, which have the artificial uplift of a pep rally, Prefontaine, small-scaled and quiet, is about defeat as much as victory. Steve Prefontaine, who died at age 24 in a car crash in 1975, was a great distance runner, setting several records. But he failed to even medal at the Munich Olympics in 1972. How he overcame that humiliation is the chief interest of Prefontaine, directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) in a mock-documentary style. The footage is often grainy, and the core people in Prefontaine's life—such as his mother (Lindsay Crouse) and his coach, the legendary Bill Bowerman (Ermey)—are introduced as "interviews." This technique gives the movie an even-handed perspective as it brings the runner into focus. Leto, whose lank, blond hair and boyish prettiness suggest a lost Carpenter sibling, plays Prefontaine as a cocky running machine who doesn't have much humanity (or humor) until he loses. It's sort of a Raging Boy-Next-Door.
Prefontaine, oddly enough, is but the first of two movies this year about the runner. The next, coproduced by Tom Cruise
, promises to be a more lavish affair. For now, we have a modest little winner. (PG-13)