Review: Cloak & Dagger (1984)

Cloak & Dagger

Directed by Richard Franklin
Starring Henry Thomas, Dabney Coleman, Michael Murphy, Christina Nigra

Video games never played a significant role in my childhood. The only access I had to them in my single-digit years was through my cousin, who was about eight years older than me. He had long hair, an electric guitar, and the album artwork for Pink Floyd’s The Wall painted on one side of his always-darkened bedroom. He was impossibly cool. Every few days, my father would drive to my aunt’s house to fill a cooler with water (the stuff that came from the taps at our house was questionable), and my brother and I would tumble down into the basement, where my cousin would be sitting on the floor in front of his television, hammering away at Mortal Combat or Super Mario World, always happy to let us watch as he punted someone into ceiling spikes or navigated his way through a Ghost House. As much as I loved seeing blood drip from his enemies’ destroyed torsos in Mortal Combat, the bright lights and cheery sound effects of the Mario games fascinated me. There was something about the strange flatness of Mario’s world that drew me in and made me reluctant to go back home.

Years later, my cousin gave his Super Nintendo console to me as a gift. I was 12. Super Mario Kart and The Legend of Zelda provided quality hours of pleasant diversion, but I was no longer mystified by the mechanics of Mario’s impossible world. The magic was gone.

When Cloak & Dagger limped its way to theatres in 1984, moviegoers must have felt the same way. The year before, due to an oversaturation of gaming consoles and a glut of underperforming high-profile games (including the catastrophically terrible E.T. game for the Atari 2600), the video game industry entered a freefall that it wouldn’t fully recover from until 1988 (thanks to the popularity of the Nintendo Entertainment System). In 1984, video games must have looked like yet another failed attempt to capture childrens’ attention spans and clean out their parents’ wallets.

Oddly enough, Cloak & Dagger appears to accept this outlook. Although the plot hinges on a special video game cartridge and features numerous passages of Atari gameplay, the film is ultimately one of coming-of-age, acting not as an advertisement for Atari, but instead as a sort of funeral: Video games may momentarily capture a child’s imagination, but real-life responsibilities always win out in the end.

Davey (Thomas), the film’s young protagonist, lives with his father, Hal (Coleman). Reeling from the recent death of his mother, Davey often engages himself in imaginary conversations with Jack Flack (also Coleman), his video game hero. But when he becomes embroiled in a terrorist plot to steal important government weapons blueprints (stored on a copy of Cloak & Dagger for Atari 5200), he is forced to quit daydreaming in order to save himself and his best friend Kim (Nigra) from harm.

Originally released on a double bill with The Last StarfighterCloak & Dagger failed to make an impression at the box office and has been all but forgotten over the past 30 years. It’s not hard to understand why: The film, despite its wise, agreeable message and practiced Hitchcockian setpieces, feels slight. It might be the too-perfect ending or the oversimplified plot, but the reason most likely lies within the movie’s oddly low stakes. The Atari cartridge is nothing more than a MacGuffin, and the antagonists are your typical Cold War cookie-cutter terrorist types carrying automatic weapons and wearing permanent sneers.

But the film’s approach to its story and characters is somewhat unique in its subtlety. The thugs looking to shoot down Kim and Davey never once come across as buffoons, and Davey rarely pulls off any incredibly unlikely feats, often escaping by way of outside help. The film is deadly serious: Davey witnesses a violent murder up close and later gets stuffed into a car trunk with a dead body. He repeatedly dodges very real bullets and is forced to make life-or-death decisions at the drop of a hat. Children’s films today look neutered compared to Cloak & Dagger‘s uncensored carnage. At one point, the central antagonist (Murphy) threatens Davey with such explicitly detailed violence that my jaw dropped open:

I could turn you into shredded meat in about three seconds with this baby if I wanted to. But you’ve been a real pain in the neck, so I’m not gonna be that nice. You know what I’m gonna do to you, boy? I’m gonna blow both your kneecaps off. It won’t kill you, but it’ll hurt worse than any dying you can imagine. Then you know what I’m gonna do to you? Huh? I’m gonna shoot you in the stomach. Then when you beg for me to finish the job, I won’t do it. I’m just gonna watch you die. Slowly.

I hate the phrase “They just don’t make ’em like they used to,” but in this case it’s completely and utterly true. In the US, children’s entertainment has been dramatically altered by the MPAA’s PG-13 rating, which has become the desired rating for any film intended for children ages 10 and up, effectively merging kid’s movies with adult movies and leaving out any room for something like Cloak & Dagger, which is aimed squarely at preteens but contains somewhat graphic depictions of violence. Today, the PG rating (which adorns Cloak & Dagger) is used only for films aimed at very young children. So instead of getting their violence tailored especially for them (as it is in C&D), kids Davey’s age often look to darker, more adult-oriented films labeled with the PG-13 rating. The violence depicted in Cloak & Dagger isn’t over-the-top or romanticised – its realistic nature is used to force Davey into learning the difference between imagination and real life. His life is at stake because he’s the Boy Who Cried Wolf – his imagination has been working overtime to fill the void left behind by his mother. When he’s finally faced with real danger, he learns to step out of his comfort zone and face reality.

“My dad was right. I don’t wanna play anymore,” Davey says, turning away from his hero, Jack Flack. The line between the harmless fun of video games and the ever-present danger of real life has been crossed. And, just as I had at age 12, Davey finds that the magic is gone and the responsibilities of the adult world are all that lie ahead. Cloak & Dagger flew under the radar in 1984 because its message is an unpopular one: Sooner or later, we’re all going to have to grow up.

Links:

Netflix – Cloak & Dagger
YouTube – TV Trailer
YouTube – Original Cloak & Dagger Arcade Gameplay

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