Anthony Horowitz’s series of young people’s books about a teenager who follows in his late uncle’s footsteps as an agent of the British spy service MI6 have attracted a considerable readership–not of “Harry Potter” size, to be sure, but large enough to warrant not just print continuations but this starrily-cast filmization of the first of them.
“Alex Rider: Stormbreaker” is the equivalent of the pilot episode of a television program, showing how fourteen-year old orphan Alex (Alex Pettyfer) is reluctantly removed from his ordinary life after the death of his secret-agent uncle Ian (Ewan McGregor) and induced to go incognito into the lair of the villain who killed him, sleazy computer mogul Darius Sayle (Mickey Rourke), in the interlocked causes of justice and national security. His purpose is to foil whatever terrible plan Sayle has afoot and save Britain, if not the whole world, from some ghastly fate while completing his uncle’s mission. The movie is intended as a sort of pint-sized James Bond tale, with a hero youngsters can identify with, but it winds up bland and formulaic, a kind of British “Cody Banks” without that movie’s gaudily over-the-top elements and largely minus its humor. It may be a fairly expensive production, but in the end it’s not markedly superior to the sort of thing one might expect to encounter on a kid-oriented TV cable network.
Rider is introduced as an apparently typical school-going teen awaiting the return of his uncle from a supposed business trip. But Ian is killed in a car crash while trying to escape a passel of villains, led from his trusty helicopter by Russian Yuri Gregorovich (Damian Lewis, spouting a terribly exaggerated accent), while bringing home evidence of some nefarious activity at the production plant of evil magnate Sayle (Rourke, smirking and posing). Ian’s housekeeper Jack (Alicia Silverstone, much too broadly comic) tries to comfort the lad, but he’s suspicious about the cause of his uncle’s death, and those suspicions are confirmed when he’s approached by MI6 director Alan Blunt (Bill Nighy, using every tic and grimace in his considerable repertoire) and Blunt’s aide-de-camp (Sophie Okonedo) to avenge the murder by infiltrating Sayle’s operation in the guise of a contest winner and uncovering the plot (which involves gifting British schools with dangerous computers in order to embarrass the Prime Minister, an old school enemy of Sayle’s played–most improbably–by obese Robbie Coltrane).
It turns out that Ian had been training Alex for a secret agent’s role, via vacation outings and extreme sports, without the boy’s realizing it–a regimen that a quasi-military session with the secret service demonstrates has succeeded beyond any reasonable measure. Of course at one point Alex–who, in this version at least, seems to make no real effort to impersonate the computer geek he’s supposed to be once he’s inside Sayle’s lair–is captured by the bad guys and turned over to the mogul’s confederate (Missi Pyle, in the worst performance of a mostly bad lot, acting like a young Cloris Leachman in full evil-Nazi mode) for disposal, but he escapes her wicked clutches and makes his way back to London just in time to foil Sayle, with the help of his school chum (Sarah Bolger), although–of course–he has a close shave in a final confrontation atop a skyscraper. The door is left wide open for a sequel.
But I wouldn’t bet on one. “Stormbreaker” is technically a pretty elaborate production, and the action scenes are staged relatively well, but the whole thing feels stiff and contrived, fatally lacking any genuine human feeling or humor. In that respect it’s reflective of its star: Pettyfer is a very handsome young fellow, but though he may well develop into a real actor, at the moment he’s awfully wooden and inexpressive. And while the bigger names surrounding him try to add a dose of comedy to the mix–either of the weird sort (Rourke) or of the arch, slapstick variety (Pyle and Silverstone, who actually engage in a catfight at one point) or of pure eccentricity (Nighy), none of their efforts take. Even Stephen Fry, acting as the equivalent of James Bond’s Q, looks lost as he hands Alex his assortment of crime-fighting gadgets.
Undemanding adolescents might get some mild excitement out of “Stormbreaker,” but they’re more likely to find it as sterile and wan a spy exercise as their elders. Alex Rider survives Darius Sayle, but it’s doubtful the character will survive this movie.