I first watched “Cloak & Dagger” back when I was nine or 10 years old, having recorded it on VHS when it premiered on channel 13, which was then known as KCOP in Los Angeles. From there, it became one of the many movies like “Bullitt,” Airplane” and “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” which I would watch a least a hundred times and never get tired of. Henry Thomas, in one of his post-“E.T.” movies, stars as Davey Osborne, an 11-year-old boy who escapes from reality into the world of Cloak & Dagger, a role-playing video game which features the exploits of the spy Jack Flack. Bored with life and yearning for a real adventure, Davey and his next-door neighbor Kim (a precocious Christina Nigra) embark to downtown San Antonio where he inadvertently witnesses a murder and gets hold of a video game cartridge of the Cloak & Dagger which is later revealed to contain top secret information. Davey’s wish of a real adventure comes true, but it soon becomes a reminder of what Augustus Hill once said drama “Oz:”
“Be careful what you wish for brother. Be very, very careful…”
Naturally, most people don’t believe Davey when he tries to explain what happened, and this includes his father, Hal, who loves him dearly but worries about him excessively as his son’s overactive imagination seems to constantly be getting the best of him. Once again, we have a movie which continues the theme of parents not listening to their kids until it is much too late. Then again, if parents did listen to their kids, a movie like this would not exist.
We also discover Davey is still grieving the loss of his mother who had recently passed away which quickly explains his constant escapes into a fantasy world. These elements combine together to make Hal believably dubious of his son’s claims, making it all the easier for the bad guys to try and capture him, and they are not about to show him mercy just because he is not yet a teenager.
I still vividly remember the “Cloak & Dagger” television ads just as it was coming out. Back then, this movie looked a little too scary for someone of my tender age to sit through, and my brother had already scared me off from seeing “Gremlins” although this was for reasons I would not discover until years later. Once the film made its television debut where all the “good stuff” was edited out, it seemed easier to take in.
Plus, seeing Henry Thomas with a gun excited me to no end. For once, the children were going to defend themselves without the help of adults! Now please keep in mind, I was a little boy playing with water guns back when this film was released (much to chagrin of my parents), so my mindset was, shall we say, somewhat different.
For a PG-rated movie, “Cloak & Dagger” is actually pretty brutal! You have adults shooting at kids, Davey ends up shooting a bad guy to death, another character looks like they got shot in the eye, and a kid almost gets run over by a van. You would not see anything like that in a PG rated movie these days (PG-13 movies are a different story), and this includes a cold-blooded villain telling Davey just how much he is going to enjoy blowing his kneecaps off. Looking at a movie like this today, my response to it would be, “only in the 1980’s…”
But for what it’s worth, “Cloak & Dagger” doesn’t glamorize real life violence and succeeds in making a distinction between the world of make believe and the finality of death in real life in a way which can only be rendered in a PG-rated motion picture. The movie is really more of a coming-of-age story in which Davey comes to discover how these imaginary adventures he constantly engages in are nothing compared to the violence waged in real life as certain actions render a solution which is permanent in inescapably brutal ways. Davey also comes to realize this even before reaching the age of puberty, so you know his teenage years are going to more torturous than what the average adolescent is forced to endure.
Thomas’ performance as Davey Osbourne was proof his excellent performance in “E.T.” (one of the best ever given by a child actor) was no fluke. You never catch him acting, and everything he does comes from a believable and natural place. Even as the movie heads into the inescapable territory of illogic which is typically inescapable in 80’s action movies, Thomas remains the emotional center of the story and keeps us watching to the very end. It’s hard enough to ask a pre-teen to carry any feature length movie on their shoulders, but Thomas had long since proven to be a true professional in doing so.
The other big actor here is Dabney Coleman who, back in the 1980’s seemed to be in every other movie. He plays Davey’s Air Force father, Hal Osborne, as well as his imaginary hero Jack Flack whom Davey sees as a more appealing version of his dad. Coleman is great in both roles, and you really have to appreciate his performance as Hal because it could have been your typically clichéd one-note daddy character. Throughout, he rides a good balance between being the disciplinarian and the sympathetic father who remembers what his life was like as a kid. Like his son, Hal wanted to be a hero too.
However, Coleman is clearly having more fun playing superspy Jack Flack who may not be as smooth or as dashing as James Bond, but is still very clever in his own mustached way. All that’s missing is a patch over one of his eyes, but Kurt Russell already beat him to this in “Escape From New York.” Seeing the actor reacting to his performance as Hal is good for a few laughs as Flack never stops deriding the man’s lack of belief and faith in his son.
When it comes to the bad guys, they are the typical one-dimensional types you usually find in 1980’s movies, but that’s just fine here. Eloy Casados plays Alvarez as your mainly stone-faced henchman; the kind of guy who smirks more than he smiles, and not just because he’s in a foul mood. In fact, a guy like him is typically never really happy about anything. I also love how he shoots at Davey from only a few feet away and STILL COMPLETELY MISSES HIM. He would have made a great stormtrooper.
Then you have Haverman who is played by former professional football player Tim Rossovich. With his strong body and build, he’s like the Incredible Hulk as a bad guy, except he doesn’t turn green and rip off his clothes whenever he gets pissed (his jeans do look a little tight on him though). The door is locked? This guy just smashes right through it as if it were no big thing, and it got to where I was just waiting for him to say:
But the main baddie here is Rice, and he is played by Michael Murphy in a truly chilling performance. Murphy, still a few years away from playing the spineless mayor of Gotham in “Batman Returns,” gives you the perfect kind of bad guy you love to despise with every fiber of your being as he makes you believe Rice would think nothing of killing a kid who stood in the way of his ultimate goal; delivering government secrets to spies. Man, I remember wanting to see him get his just desserts as soon as he appeared onscreen.
When it comes to scene stealers, Christina Nigra wins the prize as Davey’s non-imaginary friend, Kim. Her sassy attitude makes for some great moments, especially when she informs her mother that Davey’s father is not her type. She does get annoyed with Davey when he takes things a little too far, but even she comes to admit he is never ever boring. Nigra also holds her own in front of the airport police chief as he smokes a cigarette in very close proximity to her. You don’t even see her complaining about the smoke. Maybe the anti-smoking campaigns hadn’t reached her school yet.
There are a couple of other familiar faces to be found here including the late Robert DoQui whose subdued performance as Lt. Fleming is the polar opposite of the hard-nosed and law enforcement chief we saw him portray in the “Robocop.”. William Forsythe also shows up as Davey’s other friend Morris and, seriously, he doesn’t look like he has aged a day since 1984. Even Louie Anderson appears for less than a minute as a hygienically challenged taxi cab driver who offers to give Davey a ride to the airport but only if he gives him $15 dollars in advance.
“Cloak & Dagger” marked the second collaboration between director Richard Franklin and screenwriter Tom Holland. Their previous film together was the eagerly awaited sequel “Psycho II,” and while this film offers them a change of pace, it still proves to be pretty intense. That they managed to find a balance between the real and imaginary worlds Davey Osbourne inhabits is fairly remarkable as it could not have been the least bit simple.
So much has changed in the world since “Cloak & Dagger” first came out, and it now seems astonishing just how dark it was compared to the movies that come out today with a PG rating. It was made back when you didn’t need a plane ticket to get through security screening, and you could hang out with your loved ones at the gate before their plane took off. You could smoke on airplanes back then as well. What hasn’t changed or weakened through the passing of time are the performances of Thomas and Coleman. Both are a reason why this film managed to find such a large audience on video after it failed to do so in movie theaters.
Of course, these days I have to wonder what a “Cloak & Dagger” sequel might look like. While certain questions were easy to answer back in the 1980’s, everything these days feels far more complex. There’s no doubt Davey Osbourne would be severely traumatized by his experiences here, and perhaps he and Kevin McCallister from “Home Alone” can join forces as they both defeated their antagonists in very painful ways.
Once again, only in the 1980’s could a movie like this have been made.
* * * ½ out of * * * *