As beautifully photographed, as beautifully acted, as well-intentioned as All the Right Moves is, it's seriously flawed. That's too bad because All the Right Moves should not be written off as just another teen-age exploitation flick, a Gidget Goes to the Gridiron. It's some of that, but it seeks to be more, so that all the standard classroom antics, the parked-car fumbling and the I'll-respect-you-laters, even the rather lackluster choice of rock tunes, might be forgiven. What All the Right Moves can't be absolved of is failing to understand its pivotal character—a high school football coach—and, more's the pity, for altogether mangling the coach's relationship with the movie's leading player.
This is sad because for generations the high school coach has been a crucial figure for millions of American boys, one who has had no less telling an influence upon the scions of Groton than upon the sons of steelworkers in Aliquippa, Pa., which is where this film was researched. Given the quasi-military nature and ceremonial trappings of his sport, it's the high school football coach who has had the most important impact upon these straining young lives. And that's what makes it so disappointing that All the Right Moves's Coach Nickerson is such an ill-defined character.
Nickerson is consumed by ambition. He's a martinet who yanks his players about by the face mask, calls them cowards and quitters when they err and makes them bark like dogs. But as unpalatable a figure as the coach is, it's still impossible to understand why he acts as he does toward Stef Djordjevic, his senior cornerback. And this relationship is the very heart of the film.
Stef, played compellingly by Tom Cruise, is clearly a coach's dream. He's a bright student, brimming with maturity and perspective: He seeks to use a football scholarship to get out of the mill town and become an engineer because he realizes that "a 5'10", 175-pound white cornerback" has no long-term future in the game. Moreover, Stef is tough as nails but gentle with his lovely girl friend, loyal to his pals and a stalwart of good humor and inner strength—and he wears a crucifix around his neck. Woody Hayes would have loved this kid. Yet Nickerson cannot abide Stef, because occasionally on crossing patterns the cornerback goes for the man instead of the ball. That, apparently, is the whole conflict.
All the Right Moves suffers from herky-jerky direction, and as the movie bumped along I kept thinking that whole scenes must have been dropped by mistake. It's such a curious film: so tattered in the middle, yet with all the edges so well knit. How easy it would have been to be gratuitous with the camera—the cliché smokestacks, the central-casting ethnics. But never. And the actors surmount the script. As Nickerson, Craig T. Nelson gives us glimpses of what the coach could have been. Nelson, who played the father in Poltergeist, has the face God made just before He got William Hurt right. As for Cruise, he may be a brooding heartthrob type for the teeners, but as he showed in Risky Business, he's also a young actor of consequence.
The rookie director of All the Right Moves, Michael Chapman, has previously been acclaimed for his work as a cinematographer, and it certainly shows. In Brian, Stef's best friend, played by Christopher Penn, Chapman gives us that wonderfully contradictory vision of young American football players: baby-faced boys so vulnerable except, suddenly, when they're armored and helmeted, warriors between the sideline stripes. The one long football sequence is also splendid sports photography, notwithstanding the idiotic denouement.
Like so many sports movies, this one has a foolish title—not to sound too jocky—and it tries to do too many things: a bit of fast times at Steel Mill High, a bit of rock-'n'-roll, a bit of young Cruise brooding and disrobing. Punch all the tickets. Alas, we've had all sorts of movies about high school boys and their girls, high school boys and their sidekicks, high school boys and their fathers. We've never had one about that hopelessly bittersweet relationship between a high school boy and his coach. This one could have been that, but it missed the mark.
Penn (left) may have a boyish face, but Cruise (center) is an actor beyond his years.