It’s Not Just a Game Anymore.
Young Davey has had trouble coping with the death of his mother, and retreated into the worlds of role playing and video games. His favorite of these fantasy worlds is a Bond-like franchise called Cloak & Dagger, whose primary character, Jack Flack, he has co-opted as his imaginary best friend. When he accidentally stumbles upon an espionage adventure in real life, with some local scientists selling government secrets to foreign concerns, he must stay alive long enough to convince the authorities that he’s not just crying wolf again. Can it be done? Perhaps, with Jack Flack’s help.
This childhood favorite grabs ahold of many an adolescent fantasy and pulls it into a real world setting. Some of the elements are somewhat toned down for a younger audience, but others are surprisingly grim and there are still some thrills to be had. Solid performances and familiar faces will keep you watching, but CLOAK & DAGGER won’t fully reel you in unless you are a kid, have a kid, or were first exposed to it when you were a kid—or any combination therein.
When a film relies too heavily on technology as a plot point, it can feel dated almost instantly—see LAWNMOWER MAN (1992) and HACKERS (1995), for instance. This can be smartly sidestepped by (1) having the film take place in the era in which it was created, and (2) utilizing real and believable tech. CLOAK & DAGGER doesn’t lean too heavily on the technology, but it is through an Atari game that these criminals are transferring secret government plans, unlockable only by reaching a certain score. And although it feels vintage because of this element, the movie follows the guidelines above and manages to at least feel authentic to the time.
The 1980s were rich with kid-oriented adventure films, and CLOAK & DAGGER was one of those that was in heavy rotation on television, meaning that I had watched it frequently as a youngster. Because of this film, and others of its ilk, spy was one of three things that I longed to be when I grew up—the other two being vigilante (thanks to Alan Moore’s Watchmen, specifically Rorschach) and Private Eye (thanks to SIMON AND SIMON). Suffice it to say that these dreams were never realized, but I still like to dip my toe into the lake of fantasy with films that revolve around these tropes from time to time. It was with an embarrassing amount of excitement that I sat down to view this movie again for the first time in decades, although I was sure that there was no way it could hold up through adult eyes.
It didn’t, at least not entirely. There were a few plot holes that I never picked up on as a child and there were a few more leaps in logic than I remembered; but I was still thrilled by the scene in which Davey is slowly pursued across a tour boat by a pair of paid thugs, and still chilled by an elderly couple who were not the sweet old grandparents we were initially lead to believe. Davey and his younger companion Kim (Christina Nigra) are placed in genuine peril here, much more so than in other adventure flicks. The movie does not talk down to its young audience or its young stars. At one point, Davey is held at gunpoint and threatened with having his kneecaps shot out, a pain that he is told is so great that he will beg for a death that will not be granted to him. That’s pretty damn dark for a children’s film.
Something else I didn’t catch until viewing this as an adult is how unwell Davey seems. Even as a kid, I knew that Jack Flack was Davey’s imaginary friend; and not imaginary like in PETE’S DRAGON (1977) or DROP DEAD FRED (1991), either, but truly a figment of Davey’s imagination. Back then, I just thought Davey was a lonely and imaginative kid. Now, though, he seems outright mentally unstable. He truly believes that Jack Flack is a real person, and it’s bad enough to see the stares that he receives while talking to himself in public settings. It’s even worse when his imaginary friend tricks him into actually killing a man, even if it is a clear-cut case of self-defense.
Dabney Coleman plays both Jack Flack and Davey’s father, indicating that the imaginary Flack is the hero that Davey wishes his father could be. In the end, when his dad risks his own life to save him, Davey realizes that his dad is a hero after all, and he no longer needs Jack Flack to look up to. His dad comes walking unscathed out of what should have been a deadly explosion, and the two share a touching embrace before the credits roll. There are a handful of folk on the internet who believe that Davey’s father perished in the explosion, and that this figure is merely another figment of the boy’s imagination, with his heroic father taking the place of Jack Flack as his imaginary friend. While I’m almost positive that this was not the filmmaker’s intent, it does offer an interesting interpretation, and in an alternate universe, a belated sequel may have a completely insane teenage Davey involved in another wacky adventure alongside his long-dead daddy.
CLOAK & DAGGER was written by Tom Holland, who had previously scripted THE INITIATION OF SARAH (1978), THE BEAST WITHIN (1982), CLASS OF 1984 (1982), PSYCHO II (1984), and SCREAM FOR HELP (1984). In 1985, he took to directing some of his own scripts and pulled double-duty on FRIGHT NIGHT (1985), CHILD’S PLAY (1988), THE LANGOLIERS (1995), THINNER (1996), and anthology series TWISTED TALES (2013).
It was directed by Richard Franklin, who has a relatively brief but completely fascinating filmography that includes PATRICK (1978), ROAD GAMES (1981), PSYCHO II (1983, where he and Holland first met), LINK (1986), and F/X2 (1991).
Our young lead, Davey, was played by Henry Thomas, who was still pretty fresh off of E.T. (1982) at the time. He does a good job here, and although he never quite landed another film of E.T.’S epic stature, you’ve likely seen him in more films than you realize. Other titles of interest in his oeuvre: THE QUEST (1986), MURDER ONE (1988), PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING (1990, playing a young Norman Bates), SUICIDE KINGS (1997), FEVER (1999), GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002), DEAD BIRDS (2004), the Chocolate episode of MASTERS OF HORROR (2005), DESPERATION (2005), The End of the Whole Mess episode of NIGHTMARES AND DREAMSCAPES (2006), OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016), and the upcoming GERALD’S GAME (2017).
Also appearing in the cast: Michael Murphy, John McIntire, Jeanette Nolan, Eloy Casados, Tim Rossovich, Robert DoQui, Shelby Leverington, and a nearly-unrecognizable William Forsythe.
If you sit through the closing credits, you may notice Russell B. Dawe listed as the game designer. That’s because the Cloak & Dagger Atari game shown within the movie was real…sort of. At the same time that the film was being developed, designers were working on an unrelated game at Atari called Agent X. The story for Agent X was quite similar to the plot for CLOAK AND DAGGER, and so they opted for a mutually beneficial arrangement. The game was renamed Cloak & Dagger in order to tie-in with the film, however the home version depicted in the movie was never completed. The scenes that show the characters playing the game on the Atari instead uses recorded footage of the arcade model, which was released, though it’s incredibly difficult to find.
Which is a shame. Life gets pretty lonely sometimes. We could all use a little Jack Flack.