512b5ioyesl_sl500_aa240_A young man named Roary enters a high rise building and takes the elevator to the top floor. Walking through the halls with the confidence of someone who belongs there, he seems to escape notice. In an empty conference room, he opens a window and, in a long, silent moment filled with dread and and almost grace, Roary leaps. His body smashes into a parked car and he’s rushed to the hospital. So begins Inside Moves, the 1980 film directed by Richard Donner (The Omen, Superman, Lethal Weapon) that is now finally finding a home on DVD.

John Savage stars as Roary, whom, we learn through the opening credit sequence, damaged one of his legs permanently in the fall. Upon his hospital release, Roary takes up residence in a cheap hotel. Depressed and bored, he goes out for a drink and wanders into Max’s, a dive bar that caters to society’s outcasts, including Stinky (Bert Remsen), who is blind, Blue Lew (Bill Henderson), who is confined to a wheelchair, and Wings (Academy Award winner Harold Russell), who wears prosthetic arms. These three men spend their days drinking the swill Max gives them, playing cards and sharing stories. There’s a lot of laughter and voices raised, but all in fun. The guys immediately take Roary in as the stray he is and become his family. When Roary reveals he’s crippled in one leg because of his failed suicide attempt,, Stinky rubs the back of his head to comfort him. It’s the first of many moments when the movie grabs your emotions and makes you look past the Hollywood conventions of Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin’s screenplay.

The most significant person Roary meets in the bar is Jerry, the young, lanky bartender who has dreams of becoming a pro basketball player. Only problem is, Jerry has a bum knee that needs an operation. Jerry is also in a dead-end relationship with a heroin addict who prostitutes herself for smack. Any money he tries to save to get that operation ends up going to support his girlfriend because he thinks he can save her. Jerry is wrong. A very young David Morse plays this role. You may recognize him from St. Elsewhere, The Green Mile, or the countless number of recent movies in which he’s cast as the heavy (like Donner’s recent 16 Blocks). Roary and Jerry become fast friends and after a chance pickup game against a pro player named Alvin Martin (Harold Sylvester), they are convinced that Jerry could go all the way someday. 

When Max has a sudden heart attack, it looks like his bar will go under. Roary reveals that he has inherited money saved away and convinces Jerry to buy into the bar with him. Roary turns the business around by adding a grill and bringing in a pretty waitress, Louise (Diane Scarwid). Despite the success of Max’s, Jerry shows his selfish side by wallowing in pity about his leg. Roary, however, sticks by his friend and tries to instill some optimism. Jerry slowly reveals his selfish side by continuing to wallow and lashing out at his friends. Roary sticks by him, though, like a true friend. After a confrontation with Annie’s pimp, Jerry is brutally beaten, refusing to leave his apartment. Who takes care of him? Roary. And who seeks out the same pro player that Jerry almost beat in one on one? Roary. Just as Roary was saved by his new family at Max’s, he refuses to let his best friend get defeated by life and he does all that he can to save Jerry.  The movie’s plot continues down a path you can see coming from a mile away, but I found it perfectly acceptable. Why? Because the elements behind the movie — the writing, the directing and especially the acting — all come together nicely and lift Inside Moves above melodramatic dribble.

Savage was at the peak of his career as the type of wounded character he perfected in The Deer Hunter and The Onion Field. While Inside Moves is nowhere near as heavy as those two dramas, Savage, as the center of the film, shows a real transformation from a broken man with nothing in life to a man full of spirit and optimism. The empathy he emotes as Roary is powerful and may bring you to tears. Likewise, Morse displays subtleties that many a current star could learn from. When Jerry’s knee gets repaired and he suddenly gets the chance to play pro ball, there are moments when has the character carefully slip out his selfishness that in other actor’s hands would have been too in your face. With just a couple looks and a slight tinge in his voice, Morse was able to convey these emotions.  Diane Scarwid was nominated for an Academy Award for playing Louise. The role isn’t flashy and she doesn’t have that big “Oscar moment” you expect in an award-nominated performance; instead, she creates a solid, perfect performance of a real human being. The nomination was well deserved.

I originally saw this back in the late ’80s, and wept throughout the whole movie. I swore then that I loved Inside Moves, and tried to convince others to watch it. However, for some reason, I never went back to look at it after a couple viewings, perhaps fearing that this film I adored so much when I was 20 and single would lose some of its power now that I’m, er, more mature. When the opportunity arose to review it for Popdose, one of the reasons I took it was to see whether it held up 20 years later. I’m so glad I chose to watch it again. Sure, I’m more aware of the formulas the script and movie borrow from, but in this day and age when everyone is writing a script, who isn’t borrowing? Inside Moves, with its abundance of misfits and broken characters, endures because it is a celebration of life and appreciating what you have.

The DVD comes with commentary by director Donner and Academy Award winning scribe, Brian Helgeland. There is also a very nice featurette that includes interviews with Donner, Levinson and Todd Walton, the author of the book the film is based on.

Inside Moves (Lionsgate) is available through Amazon.

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