Cloak & Dagger (1984)
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"Cloak & Dagger" is an excellent movie about a boy who must face the dangers of the world all by himself following the death of his mother and his father's preoccupation with work. Dabney Coleman's character of Jack Flack is the best imaginary mentor ever featured in a film, preceding the likes of Tyler Durden and Frank the Bunny by over 15 years. The ending is truly touching and inspiring. This movie also has a heartwarming message to it - that at some point, you must learn to handle life's challenges all by yourself. And also that the greatest heroes exist in real life, not in fantasy. "Cloak & Dagger" is a film suitable for the whole family whose time has finally come to get the recognition it deserves. 10/10
Children will embrace this film as all of us at that age have had imaginary friends. The movie is evenly paced and builds up to an exciting climax the way an adult thriller would say in the form of a James Bond movie but while doing this the film doesn't insult the intelligence of children --- a lot of whom are more intelligent than we give them credit for.
Some of my favorite films from childhood, like "The Neverending Story," have not stood up well as I've grown older. Others, I've found, have been enhanced by my adult perspective. "Cloak & Dagger" falls in the latter category. Interestingly, my overall opinion of the film has not changed. Back in 1984, I perceived it as a good but not great film. I still perceive it that way.
At age seven, I enjoyed how the movie blurred the line between fantasy and reality. That's one of the techniques that make for good children's movies, the recognition that a child's fantasy life can feel as real as anything else happening around him. And movies in which the child's fantasies literally come true seem like vindication to young viewers.
Henry Thomas of "E.T." fame plays a youngster mourning his mother's death by escaping into a fantasy world of adventure games. He has an imaginary friend called Jack Flack, a suave super-spy with a passing resemblance to the boy's father (Dabney Coleman, in a wonderful dual role). The father, a hardened Air Force pilot, loves his son but wants him to grow up, telling him that real heroes are those who put food on the table, not those who go around shooting people. That may seem a harsh thing to say to a child, but the boy does appear to be having psychological problems, unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality even though he's old enough to know the difference. So when he witnesses the actual murder of an FBI agent, who slips him a video game cartridge right before dying, the boy is the last person anyone will believe. He knows the murderers will be after him next, but how will he get his dad to believe him soon enough to stay home from work the next day?
What's nice about the film is the seamless way it combines the conventions of adult thrillers and children's adventures. The child as the murder witness whom no one will believe is a setup that would have made Hitchcock proud. I'm sure the filmmakers realized the connection, for there are many nods to Hitchcock, including a visual allusion to "Vertigo" as the murder victim plummets down a long stairway, and a plot that combines elements of "Rear Window" and "North by Northwest." Like the latter, the movie greatly exploits its locale. Viewers who have been to San Antonio will recognize many of the places, including the River Walk, the setting for a unique chase scene.
Then there is the MacGuffin of the "Cloak & Dagger" cartridge itself, a special copy containing information important to the bad guys (whom the kid perceives to be spies, but who may simply be mobsters). The Atari game looks quite primitive today, and the scenes in which the boy calls upon his geek friend (William Forsythe) to crack the code will probably not impress those who take interest in computer espionage. But that hardly matters. The filmmakers understand, as Hitchcock did, that the MacGuffin is there only to move the plot along, and is not independently important.
As the boy evades the villains, Jack Flack keeps appearing and giving him kernels of advice. Although we realize that Flack won't say anything the boy doesn't already know, he helps the boy keep his calm and use his ingenuity to defeat some dangerous men, while gradually learning he doesn't need an imaginary friend. This isn't like "Home Alone" where the villains are portrayed as cartoon idiots. The movie takes its relatively uncomplicated plot seriously and manages to make some sense, without feeling manufactured. While it doesn't pretend to be realistic, it does grow out of the basic truth that adults don't take kids as seriously as they should.
The movie also confirms, once again, that Henry Thomas was one of the best child actors of all time. A lesser actor could have easily sunk this movie, as indeed Christina Nigra, playing the girl next door, almost does. She is cute, but can't act to save her life. Thomas never feels like he's acting, and as a result we almost can believe in the absurd events even when we watch the movie as adults, long having set aside our own childhood fantasies.
There are a number of skilled character actors who make up the supporting cast for this film, and the script continues to hold up to today's standards. In many ways, this film should act as a template for movie studios looking to craft a story for young audiences, as opposed to "Shark Boy and Lava Girl".
Henry Thomas is Davey Osbourne. His entire life is an imaginary world of secret spies. And to aid in his games of eluding spies and dodging secret plans of assasination, Davey defers to his wartime hero, Jack Flack, an action hero that he has turned into an imaginary playmate as well as a father figure guidance to make up for an absentee father.
But Davey soons finds himself in trouble as the imaginary world becomes a reality when he witnesses a shooting in a stairwell. But, before the victim draws his last breath, he hands Davey a Cloak & Dagger video cartridge that contains top secret plans. And, while the adults think he is just playing another game, Davey and his sassy friend Kim and Jack Flack all try to solve the crime.
It is a great movie in part because you get a peak at the imagination of a twelve-year-old-boy and, once again, because a few clever kids get to save the day. It definitely looked like a fun movie to make.