Cloak & Dagger (1984)
Dir. by Richard Franklin
Starring Henry Thomas, Dabney Coleman and Michael Murphy
A kid obsessed with secret agent tabletop RPGs and video games finds himself in a real spy adventure when a murdered government agent gives him classified documents disguised as a video game just before dying. Chased by spies and mercenaries, he eludes capture with the help of his imaginary friend: his James Bond-esque RPG character, the superspy Jack Flack.
I remember watching this movie a lot when I was a kid, and remembered a lot of the San Antonio-based set pieces. However, I haven’t seen it in at least twenty years, and there were good portions of the movie (such as the kid next door who becomes a hostage, and then later is his “girl in the chair”) that I’d forgotten about entirely.
Wasn’t I just talking last review about the willingness of 80s movies to place their teen and pre-teen protagonists in real danger? This movie sees The Goonies with its hardened criminals and pirate booby traps and says “Hold my beer.” Over the course of one two-day period, Henry Thomas’s character, Davey Osborne, witnesses a murder, has his house broken into by armed thugs, gets chased halfway across the city by spies who are willing to shoot at him in broad daylight, has to negotiate a hostage exchange, gets locked in a car trunk with a dead body, escapes, gets kidnapped and locked in the trunk again, steals the car and tries to drive it away while being shot at, and gets taken hostage again, this time while there’s a bomb about to go off in an airport. That’d be a pretty good adventure checklist for a Bond movie, and Davey is only 11.
The movie is also quite willing to engage with the difference between Davey’s spy fantasies and real-life. His imaginary friend, Jack Flack (played by the same actor who plays his single father, Dabney Coleman), initially seems a figure of fun and youthful innocence, a spy figure in the mode of Roger Moore’s lighter take on the Bond character. However, as the movie progresses, and the stakes start getting higher, Flack reveals a ruthless, pragmatic side, constantly pushing Davey to take more risks and morally ambiguous actions.
It starts small, with him urging Davey to shoplift an identical video game to the spy-doctored one so he can use the fake during the hostage negotiation. By the end of the movie, he’s talking down to Davey for not wanting to “play” at being a spy anymore, and eventually goads him into committing an outright murder. Sure, he could definitely claim it was in self-defense, as the villain had been trying to kill him all day long, but Davey is the one who picks up the gun and pulls the trigger himself.
The screenplay displays a deep distrust of adults, even more so than Henry Thomas’s previous movie E.T. Throughout the film, every adult and authority figure that Davey turns to brushes him off. When he reports the initial murder to the building’s security, they decide he’s been playing a prank when they can’t find the body. It’s implied that his mother had recently died, and that both his father and the police think that he’s acting out as a coping mechanism. His friend and GM, the clerk at the local game store, gets shot by the bad guys as soon as Davey leaves the building. And all of the people he approaches while on the run laugh at him, with the exception of a nice elderly couple – who turn out to be the real villains of the film, the spies who were paying the mercenaries to steal the documents in the first place. They drug him, affably talk about killing him after the deal where he can hear them, and later take him as a hostage at the airport and attempt to commandeer a flight out of the country. Even Jack Flack, as he’s “dying”, tells Davey that he was “always on his own.” This might be one of the darkest “kid’s” movies I can remember seeing in a while.
In the end, Jack Flack, who represents the idealized dream father figure as a replacement for Davey’s distant, workaholic real father, dies and fades away. He is killed not by the bullets of the enemy, but by Davey’s own realization that spy adventures have real-life consequences, and that he can’t treat life as a game anymore. Shortly thereafter, when Davey is held hostage at the airport, his father both figuratively and literally becomes the hero that he’d imagined for himself, volunteering to go in alone undercover and using the name “Jack Flack” to identify himself to his son. The elder Osborne transforms into the action hero in truth, escaping from the fiery destruction of the plane and walking back to his son in a perfect 80s image of the badass hero illuminated by the flames of his exploits. Davey has survived a real adventure with a fake hero, and earned the real one.
So yeah, I was quite surprised by this one. It was way darker and more violent than I’d remembered, and actually had a fair bit to say about real world violence and its relationship to movie-bred fantasies. I’d wager it’s one that not a lot of people have heard of, so I’d definitely recommend checking it out.
-Okay, that review turned out a lot more essay-ish than I’d intended, so these thoughts might be a little longer than usual to fit in anything that I left out.
-I thought Henry Thomas was quite good in this film. His friend, Kim (played by Christina Nigra), however, not so much. I like how she’s written, as she clearly doesn’t have time for Davey’s spy shit from the beginning, and even after being successfully rescued is willing to keep tabs on him via walkie talkie. However, I found the performance itself to be pretty flat and lifeless overall.
-The movie makes great use of San Antonio landmarks, becoming a virtual travelogue of the city. There are major set-pieces at the Alamo, River Walk, Japanese Sunken Garden and Tower Life building.
-It was a little odd seeing William Forsythe, best known for playing gangster villains, in the role of Morris, the ill-fated computer and D&D geek who runs Davey’s Cloak & Dagger tabletop RPG.
-Yes, I know that it’s the 1980s, the middle of summer and Davey’s father is a single parent. I still found it odd that no one at all remarked on a pre-teen kid running all over downtown San Antonio on his own, even before he started being chased by guys with guns.
-I typed “Jack Black” more than once while writing up this review. Now that would be a different movie entirely.