Cloak and Dagger: Henry Thomas’s OTHER 80s classic

While E.T. is definetely Henry Thomas’s most remembered 80s movie, he made another great flick in 1984 called Cloak and Dagger.

Last Updated on April 30, 2024

If you were a kid growing up in the ’80s, one thing was true. Video games were the spawn of Satan. Okay, we know that isn’t true. But our parents? Adults were terrified of your Atari and your Nintendo, and filmmakers made all sorts of movies that painted games in a negative light. In WarGames a nuclear war was damn near started! While there were plenty of films that understood the imagination and the creative spirit that video games could foster, such as Tron and The Last Starfighter for examples, there’s also a film such as Cloak & Dagger, which goes to some really dark territory to teach  a lesson to kids that, honestly, everyone could stand to learn.

Cloak and Dagger starred Henry Thomas. Y’know, the E.T. kid (who we recently profiled on WTF Happened to this Celeb), who grew up to become the Suicide Kings dude and the Midnight Mass guy. He plays 11-year-old Davey, a lonely kid who retreats from his troubled life into an espionage video game called Cloak & Dagger. His father Hal is a military man who is gone for long stretches, and his mom is dead. So Davey is all alone most of the time. A true latchkey kid, his only real friend is his imaginary pal Jack Flack, an American spy who, like Davey’s father, is played by the great comedian Dabney Coleman.

The decision to have Coleman pull double-duty on Cloak & Dagger was genius, for reasons that become clear later. The unkillable, unflappable Jack Flack manifests in the real world, which is convenient timing. Helping out a local video game dude, and look at this dude and what a stereotypical dork he resembles, Davey and his nosey neighbor friend Kim witness and FBI agent’s murder. But before the guy dies, he hands them a Cloak & Dagger game with a secret microchip in it that others are willing to kill for. And kill they do, because people die all over the place in this grim grim adventure for kids. Starting with that poor video game dude, who was never given the chance to evolve past his stereotypical looks.

But others die, too. And that’s sorta the point, because it’s Jack, supposed hero, who drags Davey into being just as violent as he is. Cloak & Dagger has all of the trappings of a fanciful spy movie for kids, but it’s actually a lot smarter than that. Jack tries to get Davey to be just as violent as he is. But Davey’s a good kid. His gun is a water pistol and he uses a baseball as a grenade, for Pete’s sake. But after Jack tricks him into killing one bad guy, it begins to dawn on the kid that hey, this violence stuff kinda sucks! He begins to understand that all of the make-believe violence of his video games is actually quite horrific in real life. And that part of being an adult is learning to find other solutions to problems. Crucial to Davey’s understanding is who the real heroes are. Jack Flack is admittedly dashing and funny and every kid’s dream idea of a hero, but it’s his father, a hard-working military guy who works hard to take care of his family, is what a true hero looks like.

Awwwwwww. I know, right? But let’s be honest, there are some adults out there who could stand to learn these lessons even now. Still, this is a really clever script from writer Tom Holland, who Joblo fans might recognize as the writer and director of other classics, Fright Night just a year later, and Child’s Play in 1988. This guy made one Hell of a mark on a lot of kids in the ’80s, and I personally don’t think he gets enough credit. “Leave when they stop believing”, Jack Flack always says, and it’s genuinely sad to watch the imaginary agent fading away as he realizes Davey doesn’t need him anymore. Holland doesn’t save this crucial learning moment for the end of the movie. The mission is still on, and suddenly Davey is all alone to rescue Kim, keep the cartridge safe, and save the world. Honestly, this is when the movie actually does start to feel like a movie for kids, as Davey uses more playful subterfuge. It’s still deadly dangerous, but the tone is definitely less dark at this point.

The film was directed by the late Richard Franklin, and I won’t pretend he does anything particularly novel here. His direction was pretty basic, with Holland’s screenplay doing most of the heavy lifting. But Franklin is another director who had his moment and made a mark with films such as F/X2, Psycho II, and the bizarre ape horror Link. A devotee and scholar of Alfred Hitchcock, Franklin has appeared in multiple documentaries on the legendary director and like him, steered his style towards psychological thrillers and tense character studies, of which Cloak & Dagger is both.

dabney coleman

Franklin does prove pretty good at capturing chase sequences, though, and there’s a good one with multiple facets to it later in the movie. Set in San Antonio, there’s a tense chase set at the busy River Walk, where Davey eludes capture, hopping on and hopping off of boats, befriending a dubious elderly couple, while the bad guys are in hot pursuit and shooting to kill.

I used to look at Henry Thomas as the Elijah Wood of his day. He seemed to be more mature than other child actors, and I’m unsure that anyone else could’ve handled such a complicated film as Cloak & Dagger. His Davey is really put through the wringer, and gets taught some harsh lessons with his life on the line. But the real star of the show is Dabney Coleman. Yes, he was in WarGames, too, but the future Slap Maxwell was one of the most brilliant comedic actors around, and he had the chance to show what he could do as a James Bond-level superspy. He had the tough task of playing the flashier version of a regular guy, which also meant having two very different kinds of interaction with Henry Thomas. The two are wonderful together, and it’s interesting to watch their chemistry remain intact as Davey pulls away from Jack Flack, and begins to listen more to the teachings of his father.

As for the video game at the heart of this deadly spy plot? Well, it’s a real thing. However, the Cloak & Dagger video game was only in the arcades at the time, so they basically faked it so it looked as if Davey was playing it at home. A home version was eventually released in 2022, nearly 40 years later, in the Atari 50 compilation.

Cloak and Dagger was released in  1984 during the summer Olympics, with Universal figuring that kids would skip the Games and go to the movies, instead. That plan didn’t really work out as the film only made $9.7M at the box office. It became a bigger hit later on VHS and on cable television, although it’s a tough one to find now. I recently hosted a special screening of the film at Alamo Drafthouse here in DC, trying to introduce it to a new generations of fans. You should check it out, too. Cloak & Dagger is a really special coming-of-age movie that combines childish wish fulfilment, deadly action, pathos, and emotional growth into a nifty spy movie. It’s still shocking to me that there hasn’t been a remake yet, but that makes seeing the original even more meaningful.

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