No. 42: All the Right Moves

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Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

While it’s still pretty far down the list of the top-grossing movies of 1983, I would say that All the Right Moves is the first relatively iconic film on our list. It seems to have grown in stature over time since its initial release, probably because of the eventual superstardom of its star Tom Cruise.

By the time All the Right Moves hit theaters in October of 1983 (one week before I was born, by the way) Cruise was already one of the hottest young stars in Hollywood thanks to the massively successful hit Risky Business released just two months earlier. In fact, most theaters were probably still showing Risky Business at the time that All the Right Moves premiered. Nearly every review written at the time mentions Risky Business so it was clearly a major cultural phenomenon that probably affected the way a lot of viewers approached All the Right Moves and almost certainly affected the film’s gross.

Cruise plays Stefen Djordjevic, a high school football player from the town of Ampipe, Pennsylvania (the town is named after the fictional American Pipe Company which employs nearly the entire town). The town of Ampipe serves as the villain of the film, essentially. It’s a depressed, stagnant Rust Belt town that represents the opposite of the cinematic American dream, a place where no matter how hard you work, you have no chance of making a better life for yourself. Stefen’s only way out is a college football scholarship, a longshot for him considering his diminutive stature and limited physical talent. But against the odds, Stefen has started to receive a little bit of attention from smaller colleges, though his desire to go to the best engineering school possible leads him to spurn an offer from an unnamed state school at the beginning of the film (the school’s recruiter is played by a very young Terry O’Quinn aka John Locke from Lost).

When Ampipe High School’s season takes a turn for the worse, the road to a college scholarship gets a little bit tougher for Stefen. The film follows the always-reliable dramatic path of tragedy unfolding from a series of misunderstandings, misdirected emotion and unfortunate coincidences. The series of events that leads to Craig T. Nelson’s Coach Nickerson jeopardizing Stefen’s college career never comes off as forced, since each character is given enough screen time for the audience to truly understand all of their actions and the motivations behind them. It’s a classic example of well-written drama, a scenario in which the characters end up hurting each other and themselves despite having the best of intentions at the story’s outset.

Nelson and Cruise both do a great job of adding real sympathy and emotional depth to their roles but it’s two supporting performances that gave the film its most interesting dramatic moments. Chris Penn is absolutely heartbreaking as Stefen’s teammate and best friend Brian, the team’s most talented player who is forced to turn down a scholarship to USC after impregnating his girlfriend. A lot of fans and critics went after All the Right Moves for wrapping up its story too neatly and happily but Penn’s character arc to me balances this out and gives us a taste of the tragedy Stef would face if he never got out of Ampipe. There’s a moment where Penn’s character is trying to enjoy himself at a party with his classmates just before heading off to his honeymoon in Pittsburgh and the look on his face as he tries to convince everyone that he’s happy with his situation is absolutely devastating.

The other real gem in the film is a young Lea Thompson, another bright young talent nabbed that this film caught just before she took off. Thompson’s resume was virtually blank coming into All the Right Moves but in the two years following the film she would star in Red Dawn and Back to the Future, two of the most iconic films of the 1980s, and it’s not surprising to see why her career took off after this film. She exudes girlish charm and while she’s a beautiful girl, she’s comes off as identifiable rather than intimidating. To apply my 2010 perspective, she reminds me a lot of Rachel McAdams, a girl that is certainly attractive enough to be a romantic lead but gets most of her appeal from her friendly, girl-next-door personality rather than raw sex appeal. Thompson’s role as Stefen’s girlfriend mostly reiterates the same themes present throughout the rest of the film (she wants to be a musician but can’t afford college) but the biggest asset she brings to the film is the addition of yet another pressure on Stefen’s life, the pressure of maintaining a relationship. She’s a supportive girlfriend to be sure but she has needs too and Stefen’s lack of emotional maturity creates more problems for him to deal with throughout the film.

Director Michael Chapman hadn’t done much directing before this film, and didn’t much after either, but real film nerds know him as one of the great cinematographers of the late ’70s and early ’80s. His work on Taxi Driver and Raging Bull put him in the pantheon of great DPs and though he didn’t continue to work at that level going forward in his career, it should be noted that when he took on All the Right Moves, he was at the absolute top of his game and I think it shows. Chapman had the foresight to hire a then-unknown Jan de Bont to shoot All the Right Moves and it’s interesting to see de Bont working with such subtle material knowing that he would later go on to become one of the leading names in blow-stuff-up-real-good filmmaking. The bleak, depressed setting of the film is crucial to telling this story and that setting is brilliantly synthesized by de Bont’s blue and gray-toned photography.

Is the ending of All the Right Moves ham-fisted and too convenient? Absolutely it is. It’s a little odd to see a film like this so hesitant to end things in a more logical, if more depressing, way particularly when it takes its inspiration so obviously from one of the most dark, depressing dramas of the 1970s, The Deer Hunter. I suppose in the end the fact that our subject matter is football rather than the Vietnam War probably led the filmmakers to opt for a happier ending. Still despite the rather gutless resolution, the film stands up today as a really effective portrayal of a classic story of teenage angst. It works particularly well set against today’s backdrop of economic depression and seemingly bleak outlooks for the future.

All the Right Moves might be remembered today because of the big names who got their start in the film but it continues to endure as a watchable film because of truthfully it depicts its characters and their hopes, fears and desires.

Next Up: Valley Girl starring Nicholas Cage.