In tough economic times, the small steel town of Ampipe, Pennsylvania is slowly dying, with The American Pipe and Steel factory the only major employer. The high school students are mostly descendants of Eastern European immigrants, and the brighter students are anxious to secure college scholarships or face a dour future in a dwindling industry. The high school's football team is one avenue for a sports scholarship, and defensive back Stef Djordjevic (Cruise), entering his graduation year, dreams of doing enough on the football field to win the attention of a good college where his dream is to study engineering.
Others have similar ambitions, including teammate and best friend Brian (Chris Penn), while Stef's girlfriend Lisa (Lea Thompson) also wants to leave Ampipe to pursue studies in music. Even the school's football coach Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson) is angling for a better job as a college team defensive coordinator. With the football season drawing to a close and a big game against an undefeated rival coming up, Nickerson pushes his players to their limit, leading to an epic on-field performance but plenty of unintended consequences.
The Michael Kane script refuses all the easy short cuts, and indeed allows Stef to discover the many ways that he can sabotage his own prospects. The film is really about all the wrong moves, and for long stretches Stef, Brian and many of their teammates face the unappetizing prospect of staying in Ampipe for all the wrong reasons. There are unwanted surprises with girlfriends, blow-ups with the coach, relationship breakdowns, mistakes on the field, and acts of mischief and petty crime that derail the already tenuous plans to escape life in the steel factory.
The tension between Nickerson and his players is at the heart of the film, and Craig T. Nelson deserves a lot of credit for creating an unsympathetic, hard-nosed high school football coach just as desperate as his students to find something better. Nickerson pushes his players to perform and think as a team, but whether he actually cares or is using them to better his own prospects is open to interpretation. The film creates a premise where both the coach and the players are scheming beyond the collective, and yet everyone needs the team to be successful for personal reasons.
Released two months after Risky Business, All The Right Moves confirmed Cruise's stature as the hottest emerging star in Hollywood. As Stef Djordjevic Cruise builds on his persona as a young man more than capable of getting himself into a lot of trouble, and then having to methodically work his back into his starting position. Lea Thompson gives the girlfriend role a sharper edge than usual as she stands up for herself and avoids cliches and daydreams about happily ever after.
All The Right Moves suffers from a really dreadful 1980s music soundtrack, but otherwise makes a sharp turn towards a fulfilling story of concentrated struggles on and off the field.
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