Cloak and Dagger

MCA/Universal, 1984 (IMDB entry)

Reviewed by Nathan Strum

The Plot

Cloak & Dagger is the story of Davey Osbourne (Henry Thomas), an 11-year-old boy whose imagination runs away with him, and gets him into more trouble than he could ever have dreamed of.

Davey spends all of his time playing games. Role-playing games, video games, and along with his friend Kim Gardener (Christina Nigra), he pretends he's his favorite game character - secret agent Jack Flack. During one of their pretend missions, Davey becomes witness to a real-life murder, the victim of which hands him an Atari 5200 cartridge titled Cloak & Dagger before he dies. The cartridge contains a secret that enemy spies are willing to kill for, and now they're after Davey.

Unfortunately, Davey has spent so much time immersed in his fantasies, that nobody believes his story. Nobody that is, except Jack Flack (Dabney Coleman), who appears as an imaginary friend that nobody but Davey can see or hear. When even Davey's father (also played by Dabney Coleman) doesn't believe his story, the imaginary Jack convinces Davey to strike out on his own to deal with the spies.

With help from his friend Morris (William Forsythe) - a computer-whiz who can solve any game, and an elderly couple (John McIntire, Jeanette Nolan) on a sight-seeing tour, Davey and Kim set out to foil the spies' plans. Can he discover what the secret of the game cartridge is, and who the mysterious mastermind behind the plot is before it's too late?

"You aren't leaving, until I'm done playing!"



Cloak & Dagger is an odd movie. It's meant to be a spy adventure for kids, but it comes off a lot darker than that. Davey buries himself in his fantasy world - talking to Jack Flack as if he were a real person, even to the extent that when he's in public, he continues talking with him to the curious stares of onlookers. What's more, Jack often gives him terrible advice - causing Davey to be put in mortal danger on more than a few occasions. Davey, despite misgivings, blindly follows his advice, getting himself deeper and deeper into trouble. Unfortunately, none of this is approached in a fun way, or even with a sense of humor.

It's hinted at, more than a couple of times, that Davey is having serious ongoing problems dealing with his mom's recent death. At times it seems that Davey is going to go over the edge and lose touch with reality altogether. This is hardly the stuff of a lighthearted adventure for kids. Given that the movie is played completely straight, the situations he finds himself in become grim, instead of adventuresome. He first witnesses a man being shot right in front of him, who then falls seven stories to land in a crumpled heap. A couple of times he ends up in the trunk of a car next to the dead body of his friend. Later, he's involved in even more deaths, and ends up using the gun he pries from the hand of a dead body to kill yet another person - just because he believed that the imaginary Jack Flack had just been shot. He ends up being partially involved in at least five deaths, and at the end of the film, thinks that his father dies in an airplane explosion, all because of him. This is supposed to be fun for an 11-year-old?

His grip on sanity becomes so precarious near the end of the film, it made me question if he was really reunited with his father in the end, or if he was just curled up in the fetal position on the tarmac, hallucinating the whole thing.

Despite the dark tone of the film, at least they're consistent with it. Once the filmmakers decided to go this route, they pretty much stuck to it. From a filmmaking standpoint, at least it's well made. There's a particularly good scene where Davey steals a car, and drives exactly the way an 11-year-old kid who's never driven before would. He keeps crashing into everything, can't see over the dashboard, and maybe gets two blocks before totaling the car.

The identity of the mastermind behind the spy ring caught me by surprise (although in hindsight it's completely predictable). Maybe I just wasn't interested in the movie enough to pay close attention the first time.

"It's called 'Karma', kid! This is what you get for playing with guns!"

Dabney Coleman gives a good performance in his dual role as Jack Flack and Hal Osbourne. The characters are worlds apart, and in their own ways, both believable. Henry Thomas does a pretty good job with what he's given to work with. It must have been a pretty depressing film to work on though, because I don't think he gets to smile more than once in the entire film.

The main villian (Michael Murphy) and his henchmen (Eloy Casados, Tim Rossovich) are serviceable, although they're strictly perfunctory. They really have nothing interesting to do or say, and exist merely to move the plot along.

Perhaps if more of a fun, fantasy element had been added to Cloak & Dagger, where it was played for laughs (or at least some fun) instead of dead-serious drama, the film would have worked better. Not to the extreme of "Home Alone" perhaps, but more in that direction. It certainly would have made it more enjoyable for kids. In the beginning of the film, they seemed to be heading in that direction with Jack Flack, but it never went beyond him, and in the end, his character ended up being almost as dangerous as the villains in his own way. Actually, this was one of the better plot points of the film, because it's the turning point that makes Davey realize that he needs to start living in the real world, or things will only get worse.

As for the video game angle - Atari's Cloak & Dagger is featured in several scenes (the arcade game's graphics are passed off as an Atari 5200 game), but otherwise, there's precious little to do with video games in this film. It's more about a kid's struggle with his emotional problems than anything else. The plots of the game and of the movie have absolutely nothing to do with each other. The video game is simply a plot device, and any game would've done the same job (although admittedly, "Burgertime" probably wouldn't have worked as well).

I think the story meeting went something like this:

Hollywood, California, sometime in 1983...

Movie exec: "Let's make a spy movie."

Lackey #1: "Great! I just saw 'Octopussy'!"

Lackey #2: "Video games are popular - let's put one in it somewhere."

Lackey #1: "Yeah, it worked in 'Never Say Never Again'."

Movie exec: "James Bond has been done to death. Have you seen how old Roger Moore looks?"

Lackey #2: "Anyone got the number for Atari? Maybe they have a game we can use."

Movie exec: "Let's make it for kids. A lot of kids go to movies. Remember 'E.T.'?"

Lackey #1: "Let's get that kid to star in it."

Lackey #2: "Drew Barrymore?"

Lackey #1: "No, the other one. The kid. With the bike."

Movie exec: "Sounds like a plan. Can you write it by Thursday?"

Lackey #1: "Sure. I'll start on it Wednesday. After lunch."

Lackey #2: "I'll call Atari. We'll make millions off this!"


Cloak & Dagger is only worth watching if you're really curious about seeing every movie even loosely related to video games. It's not that it's a bad film, it's just that it's not much fun to watch.

When I originally wrote this review, Cloak & Dagger was only available on VHS. In fact, I wrote, "I wouldn't expect to see this on DVD any time soon". Well, sooner or later, it seems, almost everything shows up on DVD, and that includes Cloak & Dagger. So, being the dutiful reviewer that I am, I picked up a copy. The image quality is certainly better than the VHS version, and it's in anamorphic widescreen, so you'll get better clarity on a 16:9 TV (although not necessarily more picture).

Beyond that, there are no DVD features whatsoever. I'm not just referring to trailers, behind-the-scenes photos, commentary audio or even subtitles for the hearing-impaired, either. There are actually no menus. This is the first commercial DVD I've seen like this. There are chapter stops (and only ten at that), but there isn't even an insert in the DVD case to tell you where they are in the movie. Even Midnight Madness and Nightmares (both pretty low-budget DVDs) managed menus. Given how easy it is to create DVDs, you'd think Universal could have thrown something in there.

Given the absolute minimum effort put into the DVD, I almost lowered my rating from the original review. But since it is still the same movie, I'll leave it.




Related arcade games in MacMAME

Cloak & Dagger

(return to movie reviews index)