At times, Michael Chapman’s All the Right Moves can be a damn good movie. Cinematographer Jan de Bont, who would go on to direct Speed and Twister among other blustery actioners, shoots the Pennsylvania steel town backdrops with compassion. And the 1980s recession is gracefully juxtaposed against the WPIAL football season, with sports a lifeline and a curse.
All the Right Moves also features a pre-Top Gun Tom Cruise. It’s bizarre to see him playing an ordinary person of sorts, although he does excel at insisting he’s better than everyone around him. He gives his character impossible and eternal youth, like the world is his oyster and there’s nothing small town Ampipe can do to hold him down.
Cruise is Stefan Djordjevic, a high school football player in pursuit of a scholarship. He wants to get out of Ampipe, where the mill is laying people off and where football is the only way out. Stef dates Lisa Lietzke (Lea Thompson), another of the town’s considerable Polish population and the sort of girl who plays saxophone under a streetlight.
Stef and his football team, coached by Burt Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson), is hoping for victory against the superior Walnut Heights team. But a critical error leads to a loss for Ampipe and Stef is booted from the team after confronting Nickerson. One thing leads to another and Stef struggles to get on his feet, with friends accepting scholarships and having babies and getting on with life in Ampipe.
Chapman does well to give Ampipe a pulse. It’s the sort of town that has a story, with Stef’s father (Charles Cioffi) and brother (Gary Graham) working in the mill. That steel mill, says the beefy loser Bosko (James A. Baffico), has been the soul of Ampipe for generations. But men like Bosko can’t see the writing on the wall. They can’t see that Ampipe is losing itself piece by piece.
This examination of the ramifications of the downturn of the 1980s, when unemployment hit 10.8 percent in late 1982, gives All the Right Moves a convincing foundation. It makes Nickerson’s decision to shelve Djordjevic all the more difficult because it shuts the kid out of scholarship attention.
The screenplay by Michael Kane provides texture, with the collision of Ampipe lifers like Bosko running into expectant dreamers like Stef. This is underlined by a not-so-subtle racial politics, with Bosko making a crass remark about the kid’s Polish girlfriend and the African-American kids finding their own ways to escape.
All the Right Moves highlights how one thing can set life off on another course, like when Stef’s friend Brian (Chris Penn) gets his girlfriend pregnant and drops out of school to do the right thing. Others experience futility in different ways, like when Bosko and the vandals attack Nickerson’s house after the loss to Walnut Heights.
Through it all, Cruise embodies the struggles of a fresh-faced young man who just wants to make it somewhere. His relationship with Thompson’s character is believable and intimate, with a few fights and tussles along the way. There’s a love scene, too.
When it comes to football, it’s everything. Not only is the Walnut Heights game representative of Stef’s way out of town, it’s representative of victory for all of Ampipe. Nickerson says that a win against the superior opponent is life itself. It means that the mothers and fathers and sons and daughters of Ampipe have a reason to go on.
So how much pressure is on the players? Their lives are caught up in the machine. As Nickerson runs around and grabs his players by the cage, it’s apparent that this is a prison for everyone involved. They go through the motions because that’s how life has carved things out. It’s how you exist in 1980s Pennsylvania. It’s how the company town breathes.
All the Right Moves doesn’t have the typical paces of a high school football movie. The game is scrambled and frenetic, with de Bont’s lens avoiding a corny showcase of “the big play.” And the streets have no end; they embody more of Ampipe than high school halls and classrooms ever could. And there’s the streetlight, where Lisa Lietzke plays that sax on another memorable night.