A nuclear war breaks out in 1996, expending the world's entire nuclear arsenal, except for one missile. Two children, Philip Chandler (John Stockwell) and Marlowe Hammer (Michael Dudikoff), are abandoned by their fathers in a fallout shelter cut into the side of a wooded mountain. The pair grow up in the shelter, with 1950s detective fiction and swing music as the guiding force in their learning. Fifteen years later Marlowe succeeds in digging out the cave entrance. The pair give each other haircuts, dress in suits, and go to rejoin the world.
Philip narrates their adventure on their first day out:
My name's Philip, and this is going to be a yarn about me and my pal, Marlowe. About the day we got out of this shelter and went off into the post-nuclear world. Now, as excited as we were about leaving the shelter, it was still a joint that held fond memories. I mean, it was the only world we'd ever known. Where I practiced my magic, Marlowe, his dancing; where we both dreamed of becoming private eyes, just like the ones we'd read about.
Marlowe hopes to find their fathers, but Philip is disgruntled that they never returned, and presumes that they are dead. The mountain is now devoid of trees. The first people they find are a trio of radiation burned "mutants" chasing a beautiful woman, Miles Archer (Lisa Blount). They rescue Miles, who kisses Marlowe as a distraction and steals his gun. This backfires, as she drops the activation keys to the last nuclear missile. Miles leaves, and the pair are immediately attacked by a biker gang of bald women in red wigs. Afterwards the boys discover the activation keys, which bears their fathers' names. This excites Marlowe, but disturbs Philip.
They rescue another young woman, Rusty Mars (Michele Little), from a group of armed children Philip nicknames "disco mutants". She takes a liking to Philip, and leads the two of them to Edge City which is plagued by gang warfare. Rusty takes them to a dance club, where they are captured by cannibals. They want the nuclear keys, and to eat the young men, a rarity of uncontaminated meat. Although Rusty helps them escape and apologises, Philip doesn't trust her. Just after they part ways the pair meets up with a friend of Miles' who also wants the keys. After he is dispatched Miles shows up and takes them to her hideout. There she tells them about the purpose of the keys. Miles then threatens to kill them, but they escape.
Rusty has followed them to the hideout, but is attacked by the child gangsters. The pair chase them away, but Philip still doesn't trust her. He wants to shoot her, but is out of bullets. After Rusty apologises again for lying to him and originally handing him over to the cannibals he says, "That was a million years ago, and I got a short memory. In fact, I don't even remember who you are".
The pair resolves to rid the city of the gangs and keep the keys. They go to an abandoned warehouse, using themselves as bait, in the hopes that the gangs will kill each other before killing them. For the most part, the plan works. However, the bosses of the child-gangsters are in fact Philip and Marlowe's fathers. Before he dies, Philip's father tells him that the past does not matter. In the end, the only gangster left standing is Miles, who has the keys. She shoots at them, and misses, but startles Marlowe into shooting and killing her.
The film ends with Philip letting go of the angst which he had nursed for 15 years. He adopts Marlowe's "silver-lining look on life". The two demonstrate Marlowe's tap-inspired "post-nuke shuffle" to the crowds of the city. In the closing narration, Philip explains that they plan to set up shop as detectives, but that first he will find Rusty and see if he can repair his relationship with her. Of the keys, he says that he and Marlowe hid them in a secret location, because "you never know, in a tight jam a nuclear missile just might come in handy".
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