Robin’s Underrated Gems: Cloak & Dagger (1984)

I’m sure every film buff has a movie they love from their childhood which has pretty much faded from view over the years, so that once they reach adulthood, they can’t find anyone else who has even heard of it. The childhood favourite of mine that always seems to draw a “HUH?” reaction when I ever bring it up to people is 1984’s Cloak & Dagger. This is a pure eighties movie, plain and simple, with a lot of hilariously outdated technology and the plot’s MacGuffin just happens to be an Atari video game cartridge. However, watching it recently, it still holds up surprisingly well 26 years later and, as a thriller, does a pretty impressive job at appealing both to kids and adults.

The film is a semi-remake of a 1949 thriller called The Window, which involved a boy known for crying wolf suddenly witnessing a murder and not getting any adults to believe his story. The young hero of Cloak & Dagger, Davey Osborne (Henry Thomas), is absolutely obsessed with video games and espionage stories and likes to act out everyday occurrences as if he were in the middle of a fantasy spy mission. He has an imaginary friend he likes to talk to, a world-renowned secret agent named Jack Flack (Dabney Coleman). Quite frankly, if Davey acted like this today, they’d probably be forcing him to take a lot meds and undergo a lot of therapy. Naturally, when Davey witnesses a real murder and is nearly killed by some real bad guys, nobody believes him. However, the victim does give him an Atari cartridge of a fictitious game called Cloak & Dagger, which is implanted with a microchip containing top-secret military plans. Even though the bad guys want the cartridge back and Davey’s life is in danger, no adult will take him seriously, and the only person he thinks he can rely on is his imaginary buddy, Jack Flack. Actually, Davey does get a little help from William Forsythe, who is virtually unrecognizable in one of his earliest roles as the ultimate eighties video game nerd.

This was Henry Thomas’ first role since the massive success of E.T. and he proves himself to be one of the best child actors of this generation with another strong performance here. The character of Davey could easily have become cutesy or annoying, but Thomas makes him into a very strong, believable kid and it’s impossible not to like him and identify with his tough situation. The movie is also a terrific showcase for Dabney Coleman, who plays the dual role of Jack Flack and Davey’s stern military father. One of the themes of this film is a child’s need for a hero. It’s obvious that Davey considers his father to be his hero, but is too immature to realize that, which is why he creates an imaginary friend who looks just like him. Coleman does a great job at playing two very distinct characters and even has a few poignant moments where you actually wind up caring with the imaginary one. While it’s obvious that Cloak & Dagger was mainly intended as a movie for kids, its primary spy story is suspenseful and fast-paced enough to keep adults entertained. It also doesn’t shy away from exploring some of the darker aspects of the material. Quite frankly, this scene here involving Davey and a mysterious old couple kinda freaked me when I was a kid:

One of the central messages the film wants to drive home for its younger audiences is that fantasy and reality are two very different things. Even though Davey has always fantasized about being a secret agent and killing bad guys, he soon realizes that actually having to kill a real-life human being is a whole different animal and isn’t quite as fun as the imaginary scenarios he likes to dream up. The movie isn’t overly violent, but does contain some pretty dark and intense scenes. At one point, Davey is cornered by a sadistic villain with a machine gun who actually says to him:

“You know what I’m gonna do to you, boy? I’m gonna blow both your kneecaps off. It won’t kill you, but it’ll hurt worse than any dying you can imagine. And then do you know what I’m gonna do to you? I’m gonna shoot you in the stomach. And when you’re begging me to finish the job, I won’t do it. I’m just gonna watch you die… slowly!'”

WHOA! Now, needless to say, you would NEVER see a scene like that in a PG-rated film today! But I suppose that’s one of the reasons Cloak & Dagger holds up so well. It tells a story that kids will like and even teaches them some valuable life lessons, but it never comes across as condescending to its older audiences. Granted, once you get older, you start noticing that this story has a quite a few plot holes, contrivances and implausibilites, but the film moves along so well that you barely even mind. Cloak & Dagger is one of those childhood favourites that I would expect to enjoy mainly as a nostalgia trip, but it’s nice to discover that it’s still pretty good as a standalone movie.

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