In 1983, when “All the Right Moves” was hitting theaters, only a secondary role in “Taps” had separated a young Tom Cruise from obscurity.
This formulaic football movie helped get Cruise on the road to superstardom, but it has rightly been relegated to the bargain bin of modern sports cinema.
Cruise stars as Stefen Djordjevic, a promising senior linebacker on his high school team, a gritty blue-collar town in Pennsylvania named after the steel mill that is its lifeblood. Djordjevic has dreams of using football — i.e. a college scholarship — to escape a life of hard labor and drudgery in Ampipe.
Standing in his way is Ampipe High’s Coach Nickerson (played dutifully by Craig T. Nelson, who’d eventually be tagged forever as the title character in the TV series “Coach”). Nickerson sees Djordjevic’s talent as a player but resents his independent streak and his willfulness. Nickerson has dreams of his own, namely a college coaching job.
Lea Thompson, who’d go on to “Red Dawn,” “Howard the Duck” and the lead in the long-running “Caroline In the City” show, is a breath of fresh air as Cruise’s love interest, Lisa.
Their romance provides a counterpoint to the gridiron-related drama. This is somewhat awkward, as the Cruise-Thompson scenes roughly make up their own coming-of-age story but one that seems to have little to do with the battle of wills between Cruise and Nelson.
The story is rendered needlessly trite because the writing and direction is so mediocre and does a poor job of establishing everything from basic football sequences to the moral conflicts that shape the plot.
There are some positives. Filmed on location in a rural Pennsylvania steel town, there’s a feel of authenticity about this. And the practice scenes, ankle deep in mud, almost capture the spirit of being part of a prep football squad.
Inexplicably, though, the main —and only, as it turns out — football game in the film is as muddled as the field. The choreography doesn’t help us gain appreciation for this team nor does the direction provide adequate emphasis on the points of contention between players and coach.
Cruise, of course, would go on to much better roles with much better material to work with. But we can see some of the actor’s potential here. That’s also true of some of the other actors on hand — Nelson, Thompson, and even a young Chris Penn, who plays another of the Ampipe Bulldog standouts. The argument could be made that Penn would portray different stages of the same basic character throughout his cinematic career, from “Footloose” to “Short Cuts” to “Reservoir Dogs.” In each case, though, these actors were able to move on from being in “All the Right Moves” to actually making them.