VHessays: Cloak & Dagger

Out of the handful of films that grabbed my childhood imagination, Cloak & Dagger is likely at the bottom of the budget totem-pole. And yet, it grabbed me and held on.  I wasn't aware of it when it hit theaters, but when I saw the poster hanging up in the movie rental store, I had to see it. I mean, come on, Davey Osborne is playing for keeps, son.

Cloak and Dagger was released in 1984 as a rare double-feature with The Last Starfighter on July 13, then separately on August 10. Hollywood was cashing in on the 80's video game explosion and both films had a video game tie-in. Cloak and Dagger's tie-in was actually arranged after the fact.  When producers learned that Atari was already in development of a game called Agent X, they basically just agreed to rename the game "Cloak & Dagger." It seems funny and half-assed because nothing in the Agent X game we see even remotely resembles Jack Flack or anything else in the movie for that matter.

C&D opens with a classic spy movie action sequence at the Soviet Embassy.  Of course it's the Soviet Embassy; this is 1984.  Ahh, the Soviets; finding a way to bring villainy to American movies for a solid 15 years. Back then, you didn't even have to think about who the world-threatening villain was going to be.  It was the Commies; period. (By the way, I am in no way mentioning the Soviet Union or communism just to drive up our hit count in Russia since our first VHessay on Rocky IV brought in a ton of traffic. Nope. Not going to do that at all. communism, communism, communism) We're introduced to Dabney Coleman's Jack Flack and his brand of snazzy spycraft with a parachute that gets sucked up into his jacket and whatnot. (Don't you miss the days when special effects included things like just playing a shot in reverse?) At the tail end of a fight scene between Jack and the Soviets, we pull away to see that this was actually just the imagination of Davey Osborne, played by Henry Thomas (still riding high after the success of E.T. only two years before). Davey allows Jack Flack to get away from his impending doom and lets us know that, "Jack Flack always escapes!"

If you didn't know, Jack Flack was a boss. My adolescent obsession with wanting to wear a beret was born the moment I saw him. I need to know if his gray, leather jacket, with nearly as many zippers as Michael Jackson's red counterpart, still exists and is hanging up in a forgotten closet somewhere or is a prize piece in some low-rent movie memorabilia collection. I still want it. I would rock that thing with driving gloves, I swear it.

Can I say that I love Dabney Coleman? The guy is great in everything; War Games and 9 to 5 come to mind. But... you need an imaginary superhero spy... and Dabney Coleman is the guy you cast?? At first, I thought that has to be the work of a crazy person who just got lucky. But now I think it might be genuinely inspired and creative casting because, honestly, it always worked for me and still does. There were so many notes Coleman had to hit; from a father who is stearn and absent, yet caring and out-of-answers all the way to Jack Flack who is funny and daring, yet has a genuinely sad and reflective moment of his own.

Moving on. Next, we're introduced to Davey's next door neighbor, Kim. ....Ugh. (I apologize in advance to Christina Nigra, but...) Kim is a horribly atrocious little Drew Barrymore substitute, obviously thrown in to saddle onto Henry Thomas in an attempt to recapture some of that E.T. dynamic. Terrible. I can't even explain Kim. You just have to watch it to remember her inconceivable nails-on-chalkboard quality. The combination of voice and terrible, terrible, terrible acting make Kim the hardest element in the film to stomach.

Davey and Kim go to see Morris, who works in some type of Radio Shack store in the mall. He's a classically overweight gentleman with thick glasses who, for some unknown reason, runs a Jack Flack role-playing game for children while he's at work.

He leaves his post in the store to take the kids in the back room (uhhh) which is full of enough 80s junk to send you into deja vu overload. Atari posters, sweet arcade games including Agent X/Cloak & Dagger, walkie talkies... what great 80s movie didn't have a set of walkie talkies?!

The kids are bored and Davey wants Morris to give them an "assignment." So he tells the young, unsupervised children to go downtown to Textronics for a catalogue of the new "4200" and Twinkies with a "secret message." Way to go Morris. As they leave, Morris hits a key on his game and we get a full frame shot of the "GAME START" screen. Wait, wait! See what they did there? Uh huh. Crafty and oh so subtle, filmmakers. You can't sneak subtext like that past us. Not this time!

The kids sneak around Textronics with a backpack full of realistic toy guns and grenades and split up with their gigantic walkie talkies. Jack Flack materializes for the first time in the stairwell and tells Davey they're better off handling this one on their own. Agreed! Let's skip forward.

A scientist gets shot by thugs but manages to give Davey a Cloak & Dagger video game cartridge and tells him, "Whatever you do, don't let them get it. Tell the FBI." Another good choice by the adults in this movie. The thugs chase Davey (very ineffectively) and shoot at him until he runs into the lobby and yells, "Murder!" The thugs disappear along with the body, leaving Davey with no evidence to show the Cops. Davey blames the Nazis. I'm not sure how he thinks they got mixed up in this.

From here on out, it's all a cat and mouse game of the bad guys trying to catch Davey while Davey tries to get the adults to believe him. Not easy when he's known for his overactive imagination. When the Cops take him home, we see Davey's Dad, Capt. Hal Osborne for the first time. Dad is a widowed commercial pilot who is rarely home and who obviously looks exactly like Jack Flack since they're both Dabney Coleman. The movie doesn't spell it out, but I would surmise Davey subconciously visualizes Jack as his Dad both because it's a way to have him around more and to project a heroism onto his Father that Davey doesn't think he possesses.

Dad doesn't believe the wild story and Davey says if his Mom were there, she would! (Classic.) Davey even shows him the game that the "FBI man" gave him. FBI man? He was in a lab coat, Dave. Anyway, Hal says he wanted to be a hero too and busts out the wisdom: "Heroes don't just shoot bad guys. They put supper on the table. They fix bicycles. They do boring things. Real things. Not make believe." Save that and toss it out at the fam the next time you're feeling unappreciated, Dads.

There are more memorable moments. Like after Dad leaves for work in the morning. The thugs show up and break into Davey's house Incredible Hulk style; walking through glass doors and punching through interior doors.

Don't ask me why. Regardless, it makes it pretty easy for Davey to escape out a window. Morris finds a microchip in the game cartridge and plays the game until he reaches a score that unlocks top secret plans for a new "invisible bomber." He is then promptly killed by the bad guys for his efforts. The whole cartridge with encoded plans and secret microchips really fired up my imagination at the time. It was hard to think of something more awesome than that. Something else that made a big impression on me were the kindly old couple that help Davey escape the thugs but turn out to be the main villains. The scene when the little old lady reveals that she's the three fingered spy he was warned about is burned into my memory forever.

Grandma and Grandpa Spy attempt to hijack a plane and leave the country with Davey as their hostage, but Davey's Dad shows up to save the day and walk out of a slow motion explosion before it was even cool. (By the way, it's a little strange that Hal walks out of the explosion at normal speed, but the explosion itself is in slow motion behind him. You couldn't afford a longer clip of stock footage? What's going on there?)

So, what are some of the larger themes of Cloak & Dagger? VHessays are supposed to be about analysis after all and you don't have to dig too deep to find what screenwriter Tom Holland was getting at... Cloak & Dagger is about becoming a man, the loss of innocence, and the definition of heroism.

Jack Flack shows up at critical moments throughout the movie to help Davey out of a jam. Jack is Davey's imaginary friend and substitute father figure as well as a built-in confidence boost. Jack represents Davey's childhood. Jack Flack works solo and is always telling Davey how he's better off alone and can't afford to have friends. The life of a spy... and Davey's life after losing his Mother and having a Father who is never home, feels the same. Davey finds solace and escape in Jack's make believe world and adventures, but the further he is drawn to this real-life spy adventure, the less that life appeals to him. The conflict comes to a head when Davey (and Jack) are on the run again and get shot at in the park, Jack convinces Davey to shoot back and he kills the thug. Jack tells him, "You killed the bad guy. You won the game!" A callback to when Dad said real heroes do more than shoot bad guys. Davey yells at Jack, saying he doesn't want to play anymore. He throws his toy Jack Flack figure on the ground and stomps it, breaking it into pieces. At that moment, Davey turns his back on make-believe and steps into manhood. Jack suddenly starts to bleed from the bullet holes that previously had no effect. Jack tells Davey he doesn't need him anymore, he's a hero now and Jack fades away. The movie extolls the heroism of responsible adults. Although Jack's death is sad, the movie doesn't paint the abandonment of imagination as a negative. But, instead as a necessity to growing up and becoming a real hero like his Dad.

I'll try to boil Holland's themes down to this: The real world sucks, so we need real heroes. There you go. But don't watch the movie for that. Netflix this thing and enjoy the trip back to 84: tons of irresponsibility with children, many more people getting killed than you'd expect in a kids' movie, a whooole lot of mustaches, and silly bad guy antics. Or just pop it in and torture yourself with Kim's voice! Any way you go, you can't lose.