Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Ready Player One still flying the flag for beloved touchstones of the Reagan years, we’re looking back on some unsung gems from the 1980s—the movies from that decade that deserve their own loyal fan followings.
Children’s entertainment hasn’t exactly become less weighty or serious over the last couple decades. The opening sequence of Up alone should make that clear. But earlier generations weren’t always as skittish about taking stories aimed at kids to genuinely disturbing places. Look no further than Cloak & Dagger. This is a movie in which (spoiler alert) the 11-year-old protagonist straight-up murders a man. It’s not even in the climax (which, if you’re curious, includes two senior citizens being blown to smithereens). Okay, so the man was a bad guy pointing a gun at him, but still: That is some dark shit for a frothy, fantasy-based action movie geared toward viewers just entering their double digits. What makes it work is how smartly the film aligns traditional youthful (and let’s be honest, masculine) power fantasies of violence with the all-too-real effects of the same.
Cloak & Dagger fits a typical mold at first, providing a young loner with an imaginary friend who helps him through a difficult time. David Osborne (Henry Thomas, just two years after Spielberg made him fly in E.T.) is struggling after the recent death of his mother, leaving his military-vet father (Dabney Coleman) to care for him alone. To cope, David retreats into elaborate role-playing games—specifically the espionage-themed Cloak & Dagger, in which he controls the unflappable and unkillable American agent Jack Flack. Eventually, David’s spy hero (Coleman again, pulling double duty for reasons that are soon clear) manifests in the real world. This worrying hallucination soon proves useful, however, when an injured federal agent pushes a microchip containing military secrets into David’s hands and asks him to keep it safe from some nefarious villains. Suddenly, it’s Jack Flack to the rescue.
What could be another Hollywood exercise in gleeful kill-the-bad-guys nihilism is soon revealed as its opposite. The further David progresses down the spy-movie path (including arranging an exchange of the microchip for the life of his even-younger playmate from down the street), the more he realizes the horrifying nature of actual violence, and that all the pleasure he found in its fictional representation is deeply, traumatically disturbing in the real world. As Jack increasingly exhorts him to kill and maim without remorse, David slowly pulls back from the dream, until finally accepting that maturing means rejecting childish urges to violence and aggression. (Actually, forget the whole thing about this movie being targeted to children. There are entire generations of American adults out there who could stand to take this message to heart.)
Credit the twist to screenwriter Tom Holland, probably best known as the writer-director of the original Fright Night. Holland pitches the tone squarely at young minds, but his approach possess much more verve than the generic and undistinguished direction by Richard Franklin (Psycho II, Road Games). His best touch comes in an opening dream sequence that finds Flack parachuting into the Russian embassy (bearing an American flag ’chute, no less) and taking out some Cold Warriors in a lunkheaded jingoistic manner—a feel-good set piece that slowly curdles in retrospect. Cloak & Dagger is an endorsement of keeping violence where it belongs: in the realm of fiction.
Availability: Cloak & Dagger is available to rent or purchase through the major digital services. It can also be obtained on DVD from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library.