Stefen Djordjevic (Tom Cruise) is in his final year of high school, and one of the star football players there, so has hopes to be given a scholarship to a college where he can use his skills on the field to bolster his education as a technical engineer. His girlfriend is Lisa (Lea Thompson), who plays saxophone in the school band, and accompanies him from the sidelines on each game, loyal to a fault and herself wishing she could study music in college. The trouble is, their hometown of Ampipe is centered around the steel mill which used to employ most of the men, but now the economy is shrinking and those restrictions are biting the place, with Stef's father (Charles Cioffi) and brother (Gary Graham) worried for their livelihoods. Can Stef escape this?
Or is he destined to suffer knowing he blew his big chance at further education and live out his life either labouring in a low paying job or worse, stuck in unemployment as the recession hits and stays around? Not that Tom Cruise had much to worry about on that score, as the year 1983 was very good to him with a supporting role in one ensemble teen movie, The Outsiders, in cinemas and building up a cult following, and one major hit, Risky Business, proving many moviegoers were interested in watching him, not to mention fashioning a brash persona for him that served the star well down the rest of his career. Among those was All the Right Moves, a gritty drama directed by Martin Scorsese's preferred cinematographer Michael Chapman.
And it's fairly forgotten, or at least neglected in the Cruiser's filmography, in spite of offering him a nascent role which would hone that screen image, though perhaps the fact Stef was not the greatest guy, and in some ways was his own worst enemy, provded an answer to why it was not up there in most fans' top Cruise movies. Although he was no better or worse than he ever was here, another reason may have been his co-star Lea Thompson in one of her first major roles (Jaws 3D had been released the same year, though a little before this), and she proved herself easily able to take the limelight away from her co-star given the opportunity. Lisa's story was from some angles more interesting than Stef's given that in spite of the hardship he has to go through, his girlfriend has things worse, and is considerably more talented.
If you could buy Cruise as the world's smallest American football player then you'd have no problem engaging with the narrative as Stef paints himself into a corner with his bad attitude then spends the rest of the film endeavouring to claw his way back up the ladder of success to the rungs he was on before his misbehaviour landed him at a disadvantage. The problem is his coach, Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson, who would go onto small screen success as a football coach in a sitcom later on), who is one of those insanely driven men you would see a lot of when it came to the guiding hands of the American sporting movie, be it Little League baseball or basketball at the highest level, but there were few more over the top in their determination than the football coaches, and Nelson did a creditable job in that respect.
Mostly because we can see he's not being a pain for the sake of it, and he may have a point in his advice with his brave tactics for taking on the privileged school team that Ampipe must beat to have any chance at a title, or even much-needed self-esteem. Based on a non-fiction article, it was not so much the achievements on the field that resonated but the world around it, where a sporting scholarship is about the only thing that doesn't represent getting ideas above your station, and the whole town's reliance on football glory blinds them to the fact that their existence has very little else of worth in it now the steel mill is on the way out. This social conscience marked All the Right Moves out as something a little more than your usual maverick Cruise movie, even if he was difficult to accept as a working class hero, seeming just that bit too middle class for the derivation. If it was a predictable journey Stef embarked on, and even then doesn't appear to have learned lessons of humility, irksomely, watch it for Lisa and you had something surprisingly poignant. Music by David Campbell.