“Do you remember the movie Cloak & Dagger?” my editor asked. Immediately, I froze. Did he know I used to be obsessed with that little-known ’80s movie about a kid and his imaginary spy friend? He didn’t; it was just a random question, but it made me sit down and do one of the scariest things you can do as an adult film fan: re-watch a movie you loved as a kid.
Cloak & Dagger, directed by Richard Franklin in 1984, was one of those kid adventure films that dominated the decade, like The Goonies, E.T., Fright Night, Monster Squad, The Lost Boys, etc.—movies that featured kids as the protagonists, who not only had to defeat the bad guys, but often faced danger and even death. But even among these films, Cloak & Danger stands out as being particularly insane.
The movie is about Davey, a 12-year-old (or so) boy played by E.T.’s Henry Thomas. He loves adventures and spies, especially a fictional secret agent character named Jack Flack. Not only does Davey play as Jack in various role-playing/board games, the boy literally sees Flack as his imaginary friend, played by Dabney Coleman (who also plays Davey’s dad in the film), who constantly gives him advice. Although Davey doesn’t realize what he’s doing, the movie reveals he just lost his mom, and his father is mostly absent and ignores his son when he’s present. So Davey invented an imaginary friend in the image of his father that gives him advice and gets him into adventures.
A boy with an imaginary friend seems kind of normal, but Cloak & Dagger takes it to another level. On an errand, Davey is given an Atari game (titled Cloak & Dagger, and also about Jack Flack’s adventures, naturally) by a random man who immediately gets murdered by goons right in front of the kid. Eventually we learn the game has secret government plans on it which are unlocked when you get 1,329,000 points, which is why there are many, many bad guys who try to kill Davey to get it back.
As a young boy, I remember watching this movie and thinking it was the coolest thing ever. (If you asked me, “Germain, did you and your friends run around your neighborhood with a video game pretending you were a spy?”, I’d plead the fifth.) As an adult, though, I was horrified at the constant peril this character is put in. Davey spends almost the entirety of the movie in mortal danger. He’s threatened, shot at and captured by the bad guys what seems like dozens of times. At one point, Davey is forced to hide in a car trunk with the corpse of one of his adult friends, murdered by the goons in their search for Davey. Jack Flack is the one who gives him the advice to hide in the trunk—correctly assuming that the bad guys wouldn’t think to look for him in there—but the movie still treats this as a totally reasonable, non-horrifically traumatic thing for Davey to have to do.
Of course, none of the non-murderous, non-imaginary adults in Davey’s life believe him when he tells them about his predicament—except for a kindly old couple who help him out of one scrape. Again, when I was an eight-year-old, this was awesome. Watching now, it’s insanely sad, not exciting, to see countless scenes of Davey, a kid who just lost his mother, running around a city talking to his imaginary friend, all while people are constantly trying to kill him and no one does anything. But that’s not even the worst part.
The worst part is when Davey kills a guy.
Here’s how this goes down: Davey is being chased by three guys with guns. Jack gives him some spy maneuvers to get two of them to kill each other—again, the kid is forced to both dodge bullets and watch men die violently right in front of him—but the last then one corners Davey. Davey has picked up one of the dead goon’s guns, and the two are at a stand-off; but the goon doesn’t believe Davey will shoot him, mainly because Davey, almost sobbing, cries out that he doesn’t want to kill the bad guy.
Meanwhile, Jack Flack is egging Davey on to murder this man before he himself is murdered. But Davey is frozen. This is when the totally imaginary Jack somehow materializes in front of the goon, drawing his fire, and which inspires Davey to shoot his gun… killing the bad guy instantly. At which point Davey also has to watch Jack Flack, his best friend, die in front of him, because the bullets somehow killed him.
There is so much wrong with this. And I’m not even talking about the fact that at no point in this movie has the possibility of Jack Flack actually being real ever been suggested. No, I’m talking about the fact that Davey’s fucked-up mind somehow invents a scenario where his imaginary friend sacrifices himself to justify murder.
Now, if we’re being honest, Davey had no choice. He’s been getting shot at all day and, finally, he had a real gun in his hand, and one of the masterminds of the scheme in front of him with a machine gun. What was he going to do? Still, Cloak & Dagger takes the moment of a child being forced to murder an adult in self-defense and blows right by it.
This is insane—it’s the complete loss of a child’s loss of innocence, and it in the film it just doesn’t matter. Oh, the ’80s.
What matters is getting to film’s climax, where we learn that the bad guys have planted a bomb on Kim, Davey’s friend and an eight-year-old girl, who has traveled to the airport for reasons too labyrinthine to explain. We also discover that the old couple who initially helped Davey are the real bad guys, and Davey has 20 minutes to get there before the bomb goes off and the old couple escape with the secrets-laden video game cartridge. Of course, Davey is also forced to ask a variety of strangers, at night, to drive him across town in the middle of the night.
Once everyone gets to the airport, the old couple hijacks a plane, kidnaps Davey, and manages to unknowingly bring the bomb on board. Thankfully, Davey’s dad pretends to be the plane’s pilot, comes aboard, and pushes Davey out of the plane before it explodes—before walking out of the flames himself. It’s all incredibly rushed after the first 80 percent of the movie moves like molasses. (Cloak & Dagger also ends with what may be the worst execution of a ticking clock narrative in the history of film, but that’s an article for another day.)
“I don’t need [Jack Flack] anymore, I’ve got you, Dad!” says Davey at the end, in a moment that’s almost totally unearned. Obviously, Davey created Jack in the image of what he wants his dad to be. They share surface similarities but his dad is mostly a dick—he never trusts his kid, never engages with his son’s hobbies. He just goes to work and leaves a 12-year-old boy home alone when the boy thinks he’s going to be murdered. The only moment he finally realizes something may be up is when Davey calls him at work from a pay phone. Despite being imaginary and oblivious to danger, Jack Flack at least encouraged Davey, even if it was to do things that weren’t always right.
To put it mildly, Cloak & Dagger is definitely not as good as I remember. It’s slow, it’s severely messed up, and it makes the dangers the Goonies experienced look like they had a day at the playground. There’s nothing particularly cool about it being vaguely about a video game, and this certainly doesn’t make up for how incredibly cruel and brutal the film is to its kid characters.
Mostly, Cloak & Dagger serves as a prime example of why we should sometimes leave our beloved childhood obsessions in the past. Otherwise your positive memories end up as dead as the goon that 12-year-old was forced to murder.