Empty Balcony: All the Right Moves

All the Right Moves movie posterAll Stef Djordevic (Tom Cruise) wants is to get out of town, and I don’t blame him. All the Right Moves, the 1983 film from director Michael Chapman and screenwriter Michael Kane, opens on a rather depressing moment. It’s morning at the steel mill, and Stef’s older brother and father are shown wrapping up their graveyard shift. They leave the mill in silence, their fellow workers just as spent as they are. The message for viewers is clear, if not all that accurate for some (my grandfathers used to hit the bar across the street from their mill immediately after work — end of shift was a time for jollity, not introspection). The mill takes all your hopes and dreams, and crushes them. But at least it keeps food on the table and a roof over one’s head…until the layoffs start.

The two get home in time to watch young Stef, a defensive star on the local high school’s football team, start his day. Stef’s life, like the lives of the young should be, is all possibility. He has yet to reach the age where the days threaten to spread out, mostly unchanging, all the way to life’s end. His future is bright, helped along by his talent at football. Stef has no illusions about parlaying his skills into a career in the NFL. He wants to be an engineer, but there’s no way he can afford college. It’s a football scholarship or bust for Stef.

Stef isn’t the only character in this film who wants to leave the town of Ampipe, Pennsylvania (Johnstown, PA, basically playing itself). All of the kids on the team with talent are looking forward to getting their athletic scholarships and bolting town. Even the coach, Burt Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson), wants in on the action, doing all he can to impress colleges with his skills as a coach.

All this makes for a rather dour atmosphere in Ampipe. The issues it touches on, concerning the economy and labor, will be familiar to any viewer today. That’s how long the decline in American manufacturing has been going on. Decades ago towns small and large all over the rustbelt were emptying out because operations were being moved to cheaper locations. The struggles in these areas are nothing new.

The state of the town, and how the people handle the knowledge that they are part of a community on the wane, is about as heady as All the Right Moves gets. For the most part, the film is an exercise in afterschool special cliché, with foul language and a smattering of nudity thrown in to get that ‘R’ rating.

There’s the star player (Chris Penn) who gets his girlfriend pregnant. There’s a sweaty moment in a car at the makeout spot that plays like an educational film shown in health class, and more. Because of the cliché, much of the film feels like filler, as if the runtime needed to be stretched out.

The main story revolves around a conflict of personalities between Coach Nickerson and Stef. Like the petulant youth he is, Stef opens his mouth at the wrong time and gets tossed off of the team before the final game of the season. This is very bad for Stef, as decent high school football players are a dime a dozen in this country, and any blight on a player’s record will lead to colleges passing them over in favor of someone else. Which is exactly what happens. When colleges come calling on Coach Nickerson, he steers them away from Stef, and that’s all she wrote. Stef is all of a sudden staring his future right in the face. It’s no longer bright, and it’s no longer a land of unknown possibilities. It’s all crappy jobs and no financial security, just like everyone else in the town. He is understandably scared shitless.

What a depressing story. But the film isn’t that much of a downer. The ideas are much heavier than the execution, especially since Chapman and company stopped short of the unhappy ending that the entire film was setting up.

All the Right Moves would probably be an obscure flick from the early 1980s were it not for its star. Cruise was still learning the craft of acting in this film. It’s one of the few he’s been in where he was consistently out-acted by other members of the cast. I suppose, in considering Cruise’s filmography, All the Right Moves can be looked on as a learning experience, an opportunity for Cruise to star in a film where expectations were not great, but would be valuable preparation for films to come.

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