All the Right Moves: When Tom Cruise graduated from Brat Pack to star turn

The storyline is straight from Springsteen’s The River, but this is an underrated gem

There's a scene in All the Right Moves in which Tom Cruise and the late Christopher Penn share the screen for about 50 wistful seconds. It's a film in which they play fast friends in a Pennsylvania steel town who share aspirations of college football scholarships. But a teenage pregnancy sees Brian Riley, played by Penn, pass on a full ticket to California and decide to get married and take a job, a decision which demands – and duly receives – the Cruiser's patented gaze of baffled, toothy wonderment.

If it sounds to you as though the storyline might have been lifted straight from the lyric book of Bruce Springsteen's The River, then you're on the right track. All the Right Moves was actually filmed in the fabled Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and the sullen townscapes, smoke stacks and sunless afternoons are captured in despairing glory. There's a documentarian's authenticity to some of the scenes. And it's a fascinating film to revisit in the light of everything that has happened in American politics in the past decade because it mainlines straight to the land of lost content which Donald Trump would exploit so cleverly on his way to outwitting the system: the Rust Belt and the dream of local jobs and self-sufficient communities.

All the Right Moves catches the souring last roar of all that and, plus, we are watching the generation who have begun to see beyond the limitations of a prescribed way of life. “Getting out” is all they talk about. “Djordjevics have been humping steel in this town forever. It’s about time one of us had something to say about the stuff afterwards,” Cruise’s Stef Djordjevic says passionately of his desire to break the mould and go to college.

This is not Fast Times at Ridgemont High or any of those glossy West Coast films, it's an inversion of that world. These youngsters are ordinary

To become an engineer – it’s a modest premise for a Hollywood film and it’s just one of those reasons why All the Right Moves stands out as an odd, indefinable curiosity, clunky and flawed for sure but, for all of that, still alive with a strange energy that most films do not have.


Why is that? It’s hardly the story, which is unapologetically slight. In the opening scenes, young Stef and his pals are high-fiving each other in the school hallways and being all self-congratulatory and cocky. But it’s clear to us that they are just playing at being cool; this is not Fast Times at Ridgemont High or any of those glossy West Coast films, it’s an inversion of that world. These youngsters are ordinary: dorkish, boastful, uncertain and trying to navigate unpromising futures.

Lea Thompson plays Lisa, Stef's girlfriend, and emerges as the strongest character in a claustrophobic, patriarchal society, and she shares with Cruise a scene which was surely one of Hollywood's first serious attempts to explore the issue of sexual consent. When the film opens, it's the last game of the season – and of their lives – for the Ampipe football team. Stef's team is playing against a flashy, rich school from elsewhere. The only sports scene in the film lasts about 10 minutes and is terrific, from the subdued bus trip across a barren landscape to the dressing-room huddle to the last-minute fumble, in driving, horrible rain, which leaves the team devastated.

Afterwards, Stef is a witness rather than participant when some locals trash the house of coach Nickerson, played by Craig T Nelson, who recognises his star player and actively sabotages all scholarship enquiries. Stef suddenly finds that all the colleges have gone cold on him. He hits the liquor store and realises that – like Brian – he won't be getting out.


Nineteen eighty-three was the year when Cruise’s peculiar energy and magnetism began to percolate into his unstoppable rise as the biggest star of the last 40 years. He made four big-screen appearances in quick succession that year. The Outsiders was released in March, Losin’ It in April and then, in August, Risky Business presented the burnished Cruise in a dark comedy that was a sly indictment of American capitalism masquerading as a celebration. It established Cruise as a star.

All the Right Moves was released in October to a puzzled reception. This was, after all, just five years after The Deer Hunter; it was too soon for moviegoers to return to those steel towns filled with gloomy Polish and Irish and Italian patriarchs, with all that Catholic guilt and Rolling Rock beer and plaid shirts.

So, for cinemagoers in 1983, All the Right Moves must have made a confusing companion piece to the Cruise in Risky Business, in which he plays Joel, a young American who also wants to get into college, but does so despite transforming his palatial lakeside home in Chicago into an escort service for the weekend.

Watching Cruise in All the Right Moves is like seeing Joel’s less-wealthy country cousin: there’s no need for the Ray-Bans where he’s from because the sun never shines. It’s Cruise before the industry applied the permanent gloss; he’s jittery and pale and rarely turns to the surface charm. You get to watch him simply as an actor rather than the star turn – a realm into which his peers have firmly and ungenerously placed him. Cruise has yet to win an Oscar in any category, which, a quick scan of the winners lists will confirm, is ridiculous. What you get, instead, is a hint of future performances – including the obligatory drunken scene and that moment where he takes off in a full sprint through the deserted nightscape of the town.

"There's a transmission of willpower and energy that the camera picks up with him," the screenwriter Nicholas Pizzolatto said last August in a podcast exploring the Cruise phenomenon. "It doesn't happen with everybody. If he is on the screen, everyone else sort of fades to grey."

It's a succinct explanation of the elusive quality which has enabled Cruise to remain a megastar for almost 40 years, long after most of his Brat Pack associates have given up the ghost. And it's what makes his scenes here with Chris Penn, who was just 18 in 1983, so unusual and revelatory. In the wedding morning scene, Cruise gives it socks in trying to pulse with frustration and empathy and to communicate to us that this, right now, is the moment when their lives are shooting in radically different directions. But it's Penn who effortlessly owns the moment, standing in his goofy ruffled wedding suit and somehow transmitting fear and pride and optimism and resignation over their brief exchange.

All the Right Moves was made on roughly the same $6 million budget as Risky Business. But it took in just $17 million rather than the $60 million earned by Risky Business and, by the time Cruise returned with the double whammy of Top Gun and the Colour of Money three years later, the downbeat football movie began to look like nothing more than an odd footnote on a dazzling resume.


But it has stuck around like a piece of grit. As the years passed and Cruise went stratospheric, All the Right Moves represented one of the few films to capture him in embryonic form. Meanwhile, Chris Penn's career became a faltering, unsteady thing. While it was abundantly clear he had a rare gift for acting – as opposed to movie stardom – Hollywood didn't seem to know what to do with him, and he probably didn't share the singular, all-possessing want which defined both Cruise and his own brother, Sean. Chris Penn died suddenly aged just 40 in 2006, by which time he had built a dedicated cult following. Just two years before that, Salon. com ran a long and spiky tribute by Cintra Wilson under the headline The Mightier Penn, which argued that, in a more equitable world, it was Chris whom the world would recognise as the exceptional talent of the family.

"Sean Penn is phenomenal because he never does the most obvious, first-thought thing – he adds a considered layer of character spin on top of every reaction, such as: he smiles when he's being threatening because he's amused at the thought of kicking your ass," she writes.

Locals in Pittsburgh and Johnstown would vouch that it caught the atmosphere and accents and the look: the big, hulking cars, the foreboding and gloom

“ Okay, that’s great, very impressive... But Chris Penn does this other thing: he makes you seamlessly believe in characters so much you barely even notice them. It’s a more inverted, egoless choice – he always serves the role instead of serving his career. Sean is a showboat, a scenery-chewer. Chris is the opposite – a stealth bomb.”

Unfair, perhaps, on Penn senior, but it gets to the point of Chris Penn. No actor has flaunted ego on the screen as nakedly as Tom Cruise – everything is excess, all the time. In Penn, at that moment, he had a perfect counterpoint: a chunky, fatalistic, grinning ghost. And they are both just starting out.


Films lauded on their release are often shown up as dated or just plain bad by the passage of time. All the Right Moves is the opposite. It was indicted for being cliche-riddled at the time, but mainly by critics too dim to recognise that the term itself is a cliché. It had its champions, too, with Roger Ebert the most notable of those.

It's undeniably filled with archetypes, from the stoical, careworn father to the visiting college recruiters to the local thug. But it was a considered attempt to depict teenage life in a typical American industrial town at a particular point in time. Locals in Pittsburgh and Johnstown would vouch that it caught the atmosphere and accents and the look: the big, hulking cars, the foreboding and gloom and the sense that the 20th-century industrial model was failing them. That's hardly an accident: the director, Michael Chapman, is better known as one of the great cinematographers, responsible for the camera work in Jaws and Raging Bull.

Even the soundtrack title song by Jennifer Warnes has more to it than immediately meets the ear – it's got that MTV Sunday afternoon synthesised familiarity but is also entirely its own thing. There's no question that it's Cruise and his one-man furnace of emotion who carries much of the tension of the film. He deceives us into thinking that his failure to get into that engineering course would be nothing less than a tragedy. Still, it's Penn who embodies the heart of the town and a moment in American life: 1983, the declining steelworks and the unwritten law that mister, when you're young, they bring you up to do like your daddy done. And it caught, for celluloid posterity, the memorable collaboration between Cruise, the actor who still blazes above Hollywood as the last true, old-style movie star, and the scarcely glimpsed brilliance of Chris Penn. Not many films can boast that.

Oh, and needless to say, young Stef gets his scholarship too, reconciling with coach Nickerson after a showdown on the street. It’s night time, just the two of them and Cruise’s voice breaks into that familiar high pitch as he shouts: “You’re not God! You’re just a typing teacher.” He stands for a moment, framed by a church at the end of the street, then turns on his heels and sprints toward his glittering future.