Cloak & Dagger (1984)

Cloak & Dagger is a guilty pleasure film for many people who were children in the 1980s, and like most children’s films to come out around the same period, it has a cheesy charm, but it really isn’t that good.  It’s derivative Hitchcockian plotting mixed with standard thriller elements, and many things that only make sense in the Spielbergian world of child-like fantasy.  Most people probably don’t know that it’s actually very loosely based on a 1947 story originally by the great noir writer, Cornell Woolrich, entitled “The Boy Cried Murder” (aka “Fire Escape”), where a young boy who lives in a fantasy world witnesses a murder that no one else will believe.  Hollywood has made this film before, in 1949’s The Window and 1966’s The Boy Cried Murder, but the reasons why this 1984 version has become a bit of a cult film comes from those elements that make it uniquely 80s — its constant references to Atari games and “Dungeons and Dragons”, both very popular among the youth of the time.

Henry Thomas (E.T.Gangs of New York), who was born and raised in the city of San Antonio (where the film is set), stars as Davey, a young boy coping with the death of his beloved mother, and a pilot father who spends a good deal of time away from the house.  With only a couple of friends, he spends much of his time entertaining himself with his own active imagination, in the escapist world of video games, pen & paper adventures, army men, and making up spy scenarios of his own, along with his friend Kim (Nigra).  Many of his fantasies involve his imaginary friend, the fearless super-spy known as Jack Flack (Dabney Coleman, Giving It Up), who is the spitting-image of his father, save for a spiffy mustache, overcoat and stylish beret.  Davey soon becomes embroiled in a spy plot of his own, when a dying FBI agent hands over an Atari 5200 cartridge for a game called “Cloak & Dagger” that contains top-secret government information that some bad guys are killing for.  No one believes him, except for Kim (and Jack Flack), so he’s forced to have to defend himself from the murderous assassins on his own.

Cloak & Dagger was directed by self-proclaimed student of Hitchcock, Richard Franklin (Road Games) , who works here with screenwriter Tom Holland, both of them coming off of Psycho II.  One might call it “Hitchcock for kids”, as many standard elements of the Master creep in, including the themes of voyeurism (Rear Window, also based on a story by Woolrich), an innocent person caught up in a plot not of his making (North by Northwest), kids carrying ticking time bombs (Sabotage), spiral staircases (Vertigo), national monuments (Saboteur), and a nefarious villain known for missing fingers (The 39 Steps).  Trivia: the MacCreadys are played by real-life married couple John McIntire and Jeanette Nolan, Deputy Chambers and Mrs. Bates (well, her voice anyway) in Hitchcock’s Psycho.  Coincidentally, Henry Thomas would go on to play a young Norman Bates in Psycho IV.

Franklin isn’t nearly as adept as Hitchcock at using the art of cinema to generate suspense, but he has the formula down as far as how things normally would play out from a plot standpoint.  The action gets a bit sloppy here and there, and often implausible, culminating with a climax involving an explosive device with a time that somehow slows its count considerably whenever the countdown isn’t directly on the screen (movie logic!)

As much as I enjoyed these little moments of homage, there are still many elements of Cloak & Dagger that either make little sense, or are just a result of very little interest in tight, effective plotting.  For one thing, Jack Flack is a wholly imaginary being, and yet he is able to do things like open and close doors, and move objects around.  The villains, who are supposed to be professional assassins, do things even idiots wouldn’t do, such as choose some very public San Antonio sites in which to try to conduct deadly business, like Brackenridge Park, the Tower Life Building, Paseo del Rio (Riverwalk), or the Alamo.  They seem to like to shoot guns or throw knives in full view of dozens of eyewitnesses.  Oh, my bad!  They have SILENCERS on their guns, so no one will ever suspect!  I also became tired of people in the film referring to the cartridge as a “tape”.  Somehow, I suspect the “MacGuffin” changed from a cassette to an Atari game to make it seem more hip, but some sloppy editor forgot to change all the references in the script — just a speculation here.

As with many family films of the 1980s, the violence quotient exceeds the standards of what would pass as acceptable today for a PG-rated film.  Lots of gun violence, some blood, a couple of scenes of vehicular carnage, a massive explosion, and characters who actually get murdered will likely make parents who may be exposing their children to this for the first time to feel a bit uneasy about where things will likely go.  Many of these scenes involve Davey at point-blank range of a pistol or trying to diffuse a bomb, roam the streets lat at night while trying to avoid predators, or getting abducted by strangers with evil intent on their minds.  There is even a point in which the screenplay puts Davey in a position of having to murder someone.

In the making of the film, the inspiration to tie in the “MacGuffin” into the world of games came in the initial talks with Henry Thomas and his mother, who remarked that her son was very much into playing the fantasy roleplaying games, giving Franklin and screenwriter Tom Holland the thematic connection they needed to their “boy who cried wolf” as a boy who had trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality.  While Thomas was their top choice, the makers of the film envisioned Kevin Kline for the role of Jack Flack, and were initially resistant to Coleman, who had been labeled primarily in comedy roles and might make the film feel like an unintended parody. As a result, there were conflicts during the filming between protective Franklin and Coleman as to how the role should be portrayed, though the end result does work for the film.

As for the video game called “Cloak & Dagger” that is used within the film, it is actually a pre-existing game that Atari had in development entitled “Agent X”, which was to be Dabney Coleman’s code-name in the movie to tie it in with the narrative of the game beyond the title, that they rebranded to “Cloak & Dagger” in order to give the movie a recognizable tie-in.  An arcade version of the game received the new title, albeit only in a limited fashion using a conversion kit, and while there had been a computer game also developed for the Atari 800, the game never received a release for the home systems.  The screens we see of the game within the movie come from the coin-op version of the game, despite shown as being played on the Atari 5200 home console shown in the film.

Cloak & Dagger will probably have a soft spot in many hearts for people who saw this as a kid, and that’s about the only people I’d recommend this film to.  You’ve seen it all before, only much better, and only nostalgia value and the 80s camp factor makes it significant.  Like playing the Atari itself — it’s fine to dust off and play once in a while to reminisce about the old days, but without the fond remembrances, it’s just another dated curiosity.

Qwipster’s rating: B-

MPAA Rated: PG for violence
Running Time: 101 min.

Cast: Henry Thomas, Dabney Coleman, Christina Nigra, Michael Murphy, William Forsythe, Jeanette Nolan, John McIntire, Eloy Casados, Tom Rossovich, Robert DoQui, Louie Anderson
Director: Richard Franklin
Screenplay: Tom Holland