Alex Rider, a dour but determined Junior James Bond, works just fine on the page in Anthony Horowitz's novel franchise. But the character's squirrelly film debut amps up Horowitz's wry humor, putting silliness in unintentional competition with the film's action and dramatic elements.
Aside from being preternaturally good-looking and highly trained in martial arts, Alex Rider's your basic British schoolboy. That is, until his guardian uncle Ian Rider (Ewan McGregor) is assassinated by a Russian spy (Damien Lewis). Yup, Ian was was an agent for MI6, which recruits Alex to pick up where his uncle left off. Billionaire and suspected madman Darrius Sayle (Mickey Rourke) has offered up his supercomputer Stormbreaker to every school in Britain, but can he be trusted? Only Alex can find out for sure, by inflitrating Sayle's compound in the Cornish countryside (attractively played by the Isle of Man).
The character of Rider mysteriously fails to become vibrant on film, perhaps because he thinks and acts more than he speaks. Newcomer Alex Pettyfer brings appropriate authority to the role but he never quite gets in sync with a film marred by tonal inconsistencies. This rather lavish, proudly British production gathers top talent, a la the Harry Potter films: aside from McGregor and Lewis, we get Bill Nighy, Sophie Okenedo, Andy Serkis, and in especially small roles, Stephen Fry and Robbie Coltrane. Somehow they seem not to be acting in the same film, though, and American actors Alicia Silverstone, Missi Pyle, and Rourke play to the back row, definitively sending the film into camp.
It's a shame, given the energy put into the earnest action setpieces. With a few martial arts sequences supervised by Donnie Yen (Iron Monkey) and impressive stunts involving quad bikes, helicopters, and horses galloping through Piccadilly Circus. Unfortunately, director Geoffrey Sax indulges constantly whipping camera moves and quick-cutting that—even apart from the need to mask Pettyfer's body doubles—seems rather excessive (and juiced up by rock underscoring...cool, huh?).
Sax's determination for escapism forgets to account for creating a credible world to which we can escape. It's hard to let go of the possibility that the film might play it a bit straighter—like Harry Potter, which the film lamely name-checks (on his arrival at MI6, Alex asks, "So what is this place? Hogwarts?"). But on a camp, live-action cartoon level, Stormbreaker works a bit better. Nighy is typically amusing as Blunt, the waxen, ramrod, clipped-speech head of MI6, and Fry gets a few chukles out of his role as Rider's "Q," dishing out devices from a back room at Hanley's toy shop. Serkis makes an unforgettable children's movie villain as the ghoulish, growling Mr. Grin, scarred by a childhood circus accident.
And then there's Rourke. The murderous Sayle—a character awkwardly turned American—explains his nonsensical motivation of being teased as an American in London (well, he is a madman). When he bellows, "Do I look like a trailer boy to you?", it's a great comic opportunity for the audience to take in his gobsmacking appearance: pinstripes, yellow waistcoat, white boots, cane, goatee, aquamarine eyeshadow, and optional giant sunglasses. Do you look like a trailer boy? I'm not even sure you look like an Earthling, dude.
Horowitz's undercurrent of distrust for authority survives the translation to film, first by MI6's ruthless coercion of Alex and then when Blunt admits the government "would sooner trust a ouija board" than his recommendations. But what place do such serious questions have in a film that features a catfight between Silverstone and Pyle intercut with cartoons and film clips triggered by an errant remote control? The out-of-control jumble of styles proves the perfect metaphor for Stormbreaker itself.
[For Groucho's interview with Alex Pettyfer and Anthony Horowitz, click here.]