'Operation Stormbreaker' —go for the gadgets

With franchisehood on the brain but anemia in its bones, “Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker” plays like a ho-hum kickoff film in an envisioned string of spy-teen flicks based on the young-adult Alex Rider novels. While this movie may satisfy kids, it’s basically 007 ultra-lite and a sorry attempt to ride on the book-to-screen success wave established by the Harry Potter series.

Blame a formulaic screenplay by Anthony Horowitz (adapting his novel), tame direction by Geoffrey Sax and ineffective casting choices for the movie’s failure to deliver the excitement and surprises that this material demands.

Fourteen-year-old Alex Rider (Alex Pettyfer) gets recruited into Britain’s MI6 following the assassination of his uncle Ian (Ewan McGregor), a spy for the agency. Alex’s mission: Go after Ian’s killers and investigate sleazy technology mogul Darrius Sayle (Mickey Rourke).

Outfitted with gadgets, Alex infiltrates Sayle’s compound. He survives evil sidekicks and a killer jellyfish as he works to quash Sayle’s plan, which involves computers, a virus and schoolchildren galore.

Tweens might enjoy the movie. The gadgets are cool enough. The eruptions of incongruous martial-arts fights are fun, at least the first time around.

But this is essentially lukewarm genre fare for PG viewers. The

story’s predictable. The action and supporting characters, who include M- and Q-like figures, pale next to similar elements in Bond films. Phraseology like “what the heck” doesn’t fly (the MPAA deems it OK, however, to show Alex wielding a machine gun).

The actors, meanwhile, seem either bored (Bill Nighy, playing a stone-hearted spy boss) or miscast (see below), or, in the case of McGregor and Stephen Fry (playing an eccentric gadget man), they’re limited to cameos.

The primary players fare weakest. Pettyfer, probably chosen for his movie-star looks, delivers neither intensity nor the reluctant-spy and everyteen appeal Horowitz has attributed to Alex. Rourke gives us a tedious villain who generates little tension. Sayle has a viable motive — anger at Britain’s snobbery class for how it treated him when he was poor — but neither Rourke nor Sax, whose other big-screen project was the unimpressive “White Noise,” takes it anywhere compelling.

Alicia Silverstone, playing Alex’s nanny, also uses inordinate screen time uninspiringly, while Sarah Bolger (“In America”) has nothing interesting to do as Alex’s potential love interest. No doubt, she’s slated for the sequel that the movie’s ending hints at, but, given the wanness of this initial outing, that prospect seems unlikely.

Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker **

Starring Alex Pettyfer, Mickey Rourke, Bill Nighy and Alicia Silverstone

Written by Anthony Horowitz, based on his novel

Directed by Geoffrey Sax

Rated PG

Running time 1 hour, 33 minutes

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