Richard donner's sentimental rouser, "Inside Moves," which opens today at the Tenley Circle, is poised to become the next genuine, word-of-mouth-office sensation.

An inspirational comedy-melodrama about the rehabilitation of physically handicapped young men who derive support from a group of their peers at Max's Bar -- a convival saloon in Oakland, Calif. -- "Inside Moves" is sneaky-funny and sneaky-affecting.It's an artfully old-fashioned morale booster celebrating comeback kids: apparent losers, outcasts and hard-luck cases who manage to pull themselves together, buck the odds and reaffirm their pride, dignity and masculinity.

In several respects "Inside Moves" will remind people of "Rocky." The rather elusive title alludes in part to basketball, the sport of one of the major characters, a cocky young sharpshooter named Jerry (played by David Morse, a bright-eyed, personable newcomer) whose comeback from an injury that interrupted his basketball career is the film's binding plot thread.

The protagonist is a more serverly injured young man named Roary, played by John Savage, who meets Jerry soon after becoming one of the regulars at Max's, where Jerry tends bar. Roary accompanies Jerry to a Golden State Warriors game, where he's amazed and alarmed at Jerry's heckling of the pros. After the game, Jerry is brazen enough to accost and critize a rookie star, Alvin Martin (played by Harold Sylvester, a former top-flight college player who abandoned basketball for acting, putting him in the almost unique position of being an authentic jock who's also a fine young actor).

Angered at this white upstart's presumption, Martin accepts a challenge to face Jerry in a one-on-one game and barely wins. A knee injury destroyed Jerry's mobility, but his uncanny shooting touch and competitive aggression keep him in the contest. Stunned and inspired by Jerry's performance, Roary is seized with the determination to help him swing the operation that might restore his knee. He persuades Martin to assist in Jerry's rehabilitation, and as his friend improves, Roary himself gains a fresh sense of hope and self-esteen.

John Savage's performance as Roary is one of the most imaginative and satisfying acting feats of the year. In the early stages, Roary appears not only painfully crippled but also painfully inarticulate. As the plot unfolds, Roary discovers a purpose in life at Max's, becoming a responsible partner in the business, encouraging Jerry's comeback, even entertaining timid romantic prospects about a new waitress, Louise ideally embodied by the attractive, forthright young actress Diana Scarwid.

Savage illustrates the progressive improvement in nearly imperceptible increments that add up to a touching heroic recovery. He becomes a resourceful, self-respecting figure, willing to stand up to Jerry when he threatens to betray their friendship and the hopes of the surrogate family rooting for him back at Max's.

The screenwriters, Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson, did " . . . And Justice for All," but "Inside Moves," derived from a novel by Todd Walton, represents a dramatically humorous improvement. The material could be swamped by mawkish tendencies, but Curtin and Levinson keep the fable afloat with healthy doses of sarcastic humor. This bracing tone is epitomized by the friendly abuse lavished on each other by Harold Russell (in his first movie role since winning an Oscar in "The Best Years of Our Lives"), Bert Remsen and Bill Henderson as the three middle-aged cronies who make their headquarters at Max's and embody its resilient comic spirit.

The plot contains a few subsidiary threads -- notably Jerry's rather perfunctory affair with a faithless, strung-out little tart, played by Amy Wright -- that look expendable, since they add superfluous strands of pathos to a story that is already embroidered up to its plucky chin in pathos. And I wish some of the fairytale orges had been eliminatged. But even the characters that make you wince, like Wright's slut and Tony Burton as her imtimidating pimp, are played with admirable flair and conviction.

Director Richard Donner (probably better known than his actors, thanks to "The Omen" and "Superman") is at once pictorially quick and sophisticated yet dedicated to displaying the actors to best advantage. He allows Savage's performance to grow in ways that movie performances seldom do, and he achieves two sequences of remarkably sustained and touching intimacy: an awkward turning point in the relationship of Roary and Louise when sexual implications have to be faced; and a happy, drunken Christmas party with the crowd at Max's.Cinematographer Lazlo Kovacs enhances these scenes with intensely concentrated and tactile imagery. Much credit is also due to production designer Charles Rosen, who turned an empty garage in Los Angeles into the comfortable setting of Max's.

Though scarely a shoestring production at $10 million (now considered "average" for an A movie shot in Los Angeles), "Inside Moves" enters the marketplace with disarmingly low visibility. It really needs a groundswell of audience support to break out of the Christmas congestion and overcome a lackluster advertising campaign.

And, unless I miss my guess, it will get it. There's no denying that "Inside Moves" takes some gauche, underhanded advantage of one's soft spots, but it's difficult to hold a grudge. Although it's a throwback to a kind of inspirational storytelling that Hollywood once overindulged, "Inside Moves" recommends itself as an eloquent affirmative loner in this bleak moviegoing season. It affirms values that rarely fail to move and unify audiences, for perfectly good reasons: the triumph of love over prejudice, courage over hardship and community loyalty over selfishness. Why resist? The spirit of "A Christmas Carol" remains alive and kicking in "Inside Moves."