Hollywood has cornered the market on teen spy movies for a while, and now the British are getting in on the action with their own version. Enter Alex Rider, junior secret agent. Or, actually, reluctant junior secret agent. Based on the series of adventure novels by Anthony Horowitz (who also pens the screenplay), “Stormbreaker” is, alas, an ultimately drab affair that, even at under 90 minutes, seems much longer. Maybe it’s a British thing, or just uninspired direction by Geoffrey Sax (“White Noise”), but “Stormbreaker” barely breaks a sweat, and in the process, barely elicits more than a couple of mild chuckles.
The film stars Alex Pettyfer as 14-year old Alex Rider, a blonde haired, martial arts expert whose uncle is, unbeknownst to him, a secret agent for MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA. You know, the same agency that James Bond works for? Before the credits even roll, Alex’s uncle (Ewan McGregor in a 2-minute cameo) is killed during an assignment to uncover the nefarious deeds of businessman Darrius Sayle (Mickey Rourke, who we know is evil because, well, it’s friggin Mickey Rourke). Alex is subsequently recruited by MI6’s humorless head honcho (Bill Nighy), who uses Alex’s American housekeeper Jack (Alicia Silverstone) as ammunition to blackmail young Alex into service.
After a brief stint at MI6 boot camp, Alex is “gadgeted” up (this is a secret agent movie, after all) and sent to infiltrate the stronghold of Sayle. For you see, the devious Mr. Sayle will be giving away free units of his super duper new computer system, the Stormbreaker, to schools around England very soon, and MI6 doesn’t quite trust him. Why the mistrust? Probably because Sayle is played by Mickey friggin Rourke. Frankly, I’m more inclined to believe Sayle is a bad guy just because his stronghold is out in the isolated countryside guarded by a private army. And oh yeah, he has helicopter gunships and machine gun mounted humvees monitoring the grounds of said stronghold. But maybe that’s just me.
“Stormbreaker” is clearly geared towards the pre-teen market, which may explain why grown men uses words like “heck” when “hell” would be more appropriate, and why a 14-year old can fight like Jackie Chan on a good day. The film’s few action scenes are choreographed by Donnie Yen (“Dragon Tiger Gate”), but you might have missed that, as the film doesn’t really have all that much martial arts action to even need a famed choreographer at the helm. The highlight is a brief scuffle in a junkyard, with much of the fighting contained to the final minutes. Even then, I’m not sure if you can qualify Alex running away from Sayle on top of a building as “fighting”.
If I were to guess, the lack of violence, or any real action in “Stormbreaker” was a calculated move to encourage parents to bring their kids to the film, which unfortunately leaves the rest of us out in the cold. For much of its running time, “Stormbreaker” shows a lot of promise, but never seems able to deliver the goods. Director Geoffrey Sax tries to inject fun into a couple of sequences (usually involving a chase with Alex involved), but they come across as trying too hard. This is actually one of the things the “Spy Kids” and “Agent Cody Banks” movies, as average as they were, do quite well — keep the film moving at a quick, crisp pace, with plenty of jokes, gags, and cartoonish action to keep the audience entertained. By comparison, “Stormbreaker” comes across as lethargic.
The most curious thing about the film may be why the filmmakers decided to cast young Alex Pettyfer in the lead. Although listed as 16-years old according to IMDB.com, Pettyfer can easily pass for 17 or 18, which makes his character’s age of 14 more than a little dubious. In fact, I’m not sure why Alex Rider is kept at 14, and not just add 2 extra years to his cinematic age. Surely, the idea of a 16-year old high school teen working as a secret agent is almost as ludicrous as the idea of a 14-year old. And of course, it would make the film just a tad more convincing. Making the whole age thing even more befuddling, Alex later impersonates a 19-year old teen. So let me get this straight: 14-year old Alex Rider is played by 16-year old Alex Pettyfer who then impersonates a 19-year old? I’m confused.
“Stormbreaker” features a supporting cast consisting of American expatriate Alicia Silverstone, whose character does nothing in the film until a brief, and somewhat fun cat fight with Sayle’s evil German henchwoman, played by Missi Pyle. Andy Serkis sheds his CGI suit for an actual flesh-and-blood role, playing Sayle’s knife-wielding henchman whose background is actually more entertaining than anything Serkis is allowed to do onscreen. Fans of the HBO mini-series “Band of Brothers” will love seeing Damian Lewis (Captain Winters himself) playing a mysterious Russian bad guy who likes to hang out of moving helicopters by his feet while packing heat. Sophie Okonedo and Bill Nighy rounds out the MI6 bosses who sends Alex on his missions. Alex Rider gets a love interest name Sabine, but she’s barely seen until the final 10 minutes.
I’m sure teens, but mostly pre-teens, will get a kick out of “Stormbreaker”. The same reason why the “Agent Cody Banks” and “Spy Kids” movies work with this particular audience is the same reason why “Stormbreaker” will also work — kids love seeing themselves getting one up on the adults. While he doesn’t do nearly enough kicking, punching, or indeed engage in any really cool stuff as Banks and the Cortez kids, Alex Rider does get himself into adventures. In the end, that will be enough. Everyone outside the demo group will be hopelessly bored.
Geoffrey Sax (director) / Anthony Horowitz (novel, screenplay)
CAST: Ewan McGregor …. Ian Rider
Alex Pettyfer …. Alex Rider
Alicia Silverstone …. Jack Starbright
Mickey Rourke …. Darrius Sayle
Damian Lewis …. Yassen Gregorovich
Bill Nighy …. Alan Blunt
Sophie Okonedo …. Mrs. Jones
Missi Pyle …. Nadia Vole
Andy Serkis …. Mr. Grin