The Cold War wasn't just for grown-ups apparently. Kids could get in on the action too. And in 1984 no kid was more beloved than Henry Thomas, star of E.T., who put his nascent celebrity wattage to work with a pint-sized spy caper called Cloak & Dagger. It carries a few charms – including the sight of Dabney Coleman getting chased by a giant pair of 12-sided dice – but too much of it feels too familiar to leave an impression.
Thomas plays Davey, a kid obsessed with all things espionage thanks to a famous make-believe spy named Jack Flack (Coleman). Flack shows up periodically like Harvey the Rabbit, an imaginary friend providing solid advice about how to get rid of that letter bomb from the embassy. Davey gets a chance to put his pop-culture knowledge to the test when a dying scientist puts a video game holding top-secret information into his hands. Naturally, no one believes him – he has a habit of crying "sinister international conspiracy" a lot – and when the bad guys come for the video game, he and his make-believe buddy have no one to turn to but themselves.
Coleman does double-duty as the boy's father, a nice parallel that conveys some Very Important Lessons about life’s real heroes. (Naturally, Mom is recently deceased, providing a convenient Hollywood excuse for the kid's semi-detachment from reality.) The first half of the film involves a lot of exasperated attempts to convince the grown-ups that bad things are afoot, and while you don't exactly look for gripping realism in a scenario like this, the mayhem remains uniformly bland throughout the early scenes. Director Richard Franklin engenders an atmosphere akin to TV movies of the week, with a lot of empty foot chases and precocious kids getting away with far more than they should. You can show children outsmarting adults all you like, but they have to earn those spurs just like any other protagonist. Cloak & Dagger often lets David skate simply because he's the good guy, and because the filmmakers don't believe they need to show how smart and brave he can be. They’d rather just assume it and wave their hands to make it all turn out okay. Family movies serve as an excuse for lazy screenwriting far too often – “hey, the kids won't know better!” – and this one just can't resist that tender trap.
It also delivers some seriously mixed messages about imagination: admiring Davey for his creativity before telling the target audience to stop that crazy daydreaming and get their feet on the ground. It's not actively offensive, but it tends to irritate, especially for a film so clearly in love with games. (Atari gets a big boost here, and my geeky heart wept at the sight of a massive rack of Dungeons & Dragons books at one point.) As with the rest of the scenario, the producers seemed to assume that an undemanding family audience won't ask any heavy questions, leaving a lot of half-baked ideas passing themselves off as a story.
Franklin finds a few moments to defy our expectations, such as a nice elderly couple who are more than they appear and some genuinely clever thinking on Davey's part. Coleman has a twinkle in his eye for most of the running time, and a very young William Forsythe makes a nice turn as the stereotypical slob game store owner. Such tidbits never last, however, and they can't make up for the story's terminal ordinariness. Kids need heroes too, of course, and those heroes should sometimes be their own age. But Cloak & Dagger talks down to them when it should be raising them up, and in the process ruins whatever sense of fun it might have engendered. For a movie so obsessed with the line between reality and make-believe, it never knows which side it wants to be on.