Cloak & Dagger (1984) / Action-Adventure
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
Review published December 4, 2004
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) 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 near spitting-image of his father, save for a spiffy moustache, 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 with 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 John McIntire and Jeanette Nolan, Deputy Chambers and Mrs. Bates (well, her voice anyway) in Hitchcock's Psycho.
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 Breckinridge 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.
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.
©2004 Vince Leo