March 7, 2015

Cloak & Dagger (1984)

Davey Osborne (Henry Thomas) is an 11 year-old boy living in San Antonio, Texas. His mother has only recently died, and his coping mechanism has been to bury himself in role-playing and video games, particularly the spy thriller Cloak & Dagger. When Davey accidentally stumbles into a real-life espionage affair, and witnesses a violent murder, nobody believes that he's telling the truth - including his own father (Dabney Coleman). Davey is left him to evade and defeat the mysterious Dr Rice (Michael Murphy) on his own.

Cloak & Dagger is one of those 1980s childrens films where you occasionally pause to question whether or not it's fully suitable for children at all. Childrens films generally base themselves around what you might call 'false peril': the creepy old man in Home Alone, for example, acts as a frightening antagonist until it's revealed he's actually just misunderstood. Cloak & Dagger refuses to deal with false peril: it's young protagonist witnesses a violent murder, is actively hunted down and shot at with guns, and uses a gun himself to shoot and kill one of his assailants. It's also unexpectedly dark in that Davey doesn't simply go along with events as if they're the thrilling spy adventure he's always wanted. He seems actively terrified at what's going on. One can only assume there's a lot of therapy waiting for him on the other end of the closing credits.

Henry Thomas gave a remarkable performance in E.T. (1982) and, while two years older, he's required to give a very similar performance here: earnest, emotional and mourning the loss of a parent (via divorce in E.T., and an unelaborated death here). It's a role he was very good at playing, so while there's more than a little deja vu here it's a familiarity that's actually rather reassuring.

Also great is Dabney Coleman (9 to 5, WarGames) who plays two roles: Davey's troubled, slightly awkward father (an air traffic control in the air force), and Jack Flack, the fictional protagonist of Davey's games who acts as a regular imaginary friend throughout the film. Flack eggs Davey on, lectures him on proper spy behaviour, encourages him to grab a gun and shoot his assailants, and chides him when he refuses to 'polay the game'. It's a fun part for Coleman to play, and he plays it in a very entertaining manner. That he also plays such a contrasting, three-dimensional character is Davey's father is actually rather impressive. There's more emotional depth to this film, particularly in regards to Davey and his father, than it actually needs. This depth simply makes it an interesting film for both kids and adults.

I am also a big fan of Davey's best friend Kim, as played by Christina Nigra. She is written and performed with a sort of world-weary ennui. She finds Davey's imaginary spy games tiresome and embarrassing, but admits to her mother that he's more interesting than all of the other children at school. When their imaginary games turn dangerously real, and she's twice threatened with death, she just runs along with it in this oddly deadpan, weirdly calm manner. Sadly, given the nature of the film and its genre, nobody is ever going remember Kim as one of 1980s cinema's best sidekicks, but to be honest they really should.

Richard Franklin directs the film in a tight and fast-paced manner, although he's clearly struggling with a slightly lower budget than the material probably required. He covers it well. Franklin had an interesting career that began with low budget Australian genre pictures like Patrick and Road Games, jumped to Hollywood success with Pyscho II and Cloak & Dagger. After he grew disillusioned with Hollywood he returned home to direct quality dramas like Hotel Sorrento and Brilliant Lies. Here he's applying a lot of the Hitchcock-esque tricks he learned in his earlier films: there are a lot of coincidences in the action that get very effectively masked over, so that the audience can simply run with the action and have a good time. It really is a lot darker than the average childrens film as well, and that has really helped its longevity. As a 10 year-old child I enjoyed it. As a 38 year-old adult I enjoyed again, for slightly different reasons.

There is an additional pleasure to be had in Cloak & Dagger's background detail of role-playing games and videogame consoles: it's a nostalgia trip for people of a certain age, and there's a fun game to played in seeing just how many times Atari managed to get their logo on-screen (they were a key financial partner in the film's production).

Cloak & Dagger was originally released as a double-bill with The Last Starfighter, and that's a double bill that would remain very entertaining today. It's dated, sure, and it's for kids, but it's a solid step above the run-of-the-mill childrens adventure and works wonderfully as nostalgia.

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