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Sports, as even casual observers have noted, is replete with rituals. So are sports movies and Vietnam-era period flicks, as well as documentaries. Put all these genres together, and you risk a film as utterly secondhand as Prefontaine. At least if you’re as ordinary a director as Steve James.

James and co-producer/cinematographer Peter Gilbert previously worked on Hoop Dreams, the overrated documentary about two Chicago high-school basketball players. For this docudrama about University of Oregon track star Steve Prefontaine, they couldn’t leave the documentary form behind. With its varied film stocks and talking-head shots (of actors playing the runner’s friends, family, and girlfriends), Prefontaine is almost a mockumentary. That’s especially weird because co-producers John Lutz and Mark Doonan, who originated this project, had already made a Prefontaine documentary, Fire on the Track, which ran on CBS in 1995. That makes Prefontaine, a product of Hollywood Pictures, sort of a Disney remake. That tag, alas, is appropriate.

The conflicts of big-time athletics may be intense, but they’re also limited. That’s why a film like this probably won’t surprise anyone, even viewers (like me) who pay no more attention to track and field than to Brazzaville municipal politics. Prefontaine must 1.) bicker with his a.) parents b.) coach c.) girlfriend d.) teammates and e.) himself, and then 2.) best his a.) competitors and b.) himself on the playing field. There’s some real-life drama here, since Prefontaine attended the calamitous 1972 Munich Olympics and then had his career cut short. (Everyone who might want to see this film will probably know why, but I won’t tell, just in case.) Still, those hoping for surprises might as well be watching Rocky IV or The Mighty Ducks 3.

A track sensation in high school and college, Steve Prefontaine (Jared Leto) came from a moderately quirky background. Working-class and rural in a sport dominated by the upscale and well-connected, he was small, cocky, and driven. His mother Elfriede (the splendid, underappreciated Lindsay Crouse) spoke with a heavy German accent and dreaded her son’s trip to Munich; his girlfriend Elaine Finley (The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love’s Laurel Holloman) only went to college to be near him. At the University of Oregon, Prefontaine impressed coach Bill Bowerman (R. Lee Ermey), later the co-founder of Nike, but alienated his teammates. Then he took up with sleek blond runner Nancy Alleman (Amy Locane in her customary teen-temptress role), and Elaine headed home.

Even at this stage in his career, James and co-writer Eugene Corr are careful to note, Prefontaine was a pretty great guy. They show him making a pushy reporter cool his heels as he signs autographs for some enthusiastic kids; just in case we don’t understand how neat this is, the filmmakers cut to Nancy beaming at her beau’s benevolence. Later, she informs him that, “you’re more than just my boyfriend, you’re my hero, too.” Clearly the viewer is meant to yield to this judgment.

After the personal and geopolitical debacle of Munich, where a demoralized Prefontaine failed to win a medal, the runner is transformed. He confronts the authorities over the underfunded state of American amateur athletics and becomes a hero to the teammates who once considered him arrogant and self-centered. (The success of Prefontaine’s campaign to improve the lot of the Olympic athlete must mean that he’s partially responsible for the grotesque money-machine that is the U.S. Olympic effort today.) The runner’s hopes of reaching the 1976 Olympics, however, are unfulfilled.

All this is presented with artistry and invention worthy of a network-TV documentary. Real footage is mixed with fake, and dramatic scenes are intercut with phony interviews with Prefontaine’s family and friends today, aged with latex and makeup. The shots of student protesters and the period music—the Who, Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival—are standard-issue. Lest we doubt the protagonist’s enduring significance, Bowerman faces the camera and attests that Prefontaine is “the kind a coach sees only once in a lifetime.” Perhaps, but Prefontaine is the kind a critic sees every couple of months.

The encouraging thing about the current American vogue for low-budget films is that it encourages better screenwriting. A few small films can glide beatifically on a slip of a concept—A Single Girl is an unjustly neglected recent example—but in the absence of dramatic locations and spectacular effects, most of them need sharp dialogue and cogent plotting. Both are lacking from Albino Alligator, the unfortunate directorial debut of hot character actor Kevin Spacey.

Spacey’s big mistake was selecting the uninventive screenplay of first-time scripter Christian Forte (son of ’50s pop heartthrob Fabian). Never trust a script whose title can be explained only in an implausible five-minute dissertation. The film would be easier to take if Spacey had just cut the metaphorical title speech, which is based on the contrived notion that the occasional albino alligator that is born, weak and otherwise useless, is deployed by its peers as a sacrifice in the battles between rival gator gangs. Better not to know the significance of the title than to spend the rest of the movie distracted by wondering if Forte really thinks there are gator gangs that engage in turf wars.

Maybe Forte did too much channel surfing between Everglades documentaries and mock-Tarantino gangster flicks. His essential plot, however, is entirely derived from the latter: This is yet another flick in which some small-time sociopaths try to deal with the messy aftermath of a bungled crime. Three Chicago thugs—Matt Dillon’s Dova, Gary Sinise’s Milo, and William Fichtner’s Law—happen into the midst of an ATF stakeout. They take off in a hurry without fully realizing what’s going on, running over some lawmen in the process. They attempt to hide in a basement bar, a former speakeasy owned by Dino (M. Emmet Walsh), but soon discover that the place is more of a trap than a refuge. (Think they didn’t notice that the bar’s name is Dino’s Last Chance?) When the cops (led by Joe Mantegna’s Agent G.D. Browning) close in, the three desperadoes decide to take hostage Dino, barmaid Janet (Faye Dunaway), and the three customers (Skeet Ulrich’s Danny, Viggo Mortensen’s Guy, and John Spencer’s Jack).

What follows is a macho, if rather static, meditation on murder, sacrifice, and guilt. Milo doesn’t want to kill anybody. Law can’t think of anything he’d rather do. Dova is torn between the two. As for the five sort-of-innocent bystanders, at least three have secrets they’d like to keep from their captors, and at least two are capable of killing to protect themselves or others. And all eight of them are much duller than Agent Browning, who offers a lively profane commentary from outside the bar. (One of his targets, however, is the local broadcast news media, also a fairly shopworn topic.)

Everybody tries very hard, and the performances are strong—maybe a little stronger than the material merits. Spacey does a credible job, too, although his camera moves are showy and the final payoff rushed and muddled. Worldbeat/art-rocker Michael Brook’s score is a virtual world tour, ranging from pastiches of Penderecki and Steve Reich to mock-African drumming and pseudo-Arabic keen. The effect is overwhelming, and emblematic of Albino Alligator: It’s a sweeping production of a paltry notion.CP