'Alex Rider': TV Review

'Alex Rider'
Courtesy of IMDb TV
A decent franchise-starter.
11/13/2020

Anthony Horowitz's teenage spy saga comes to Amazon's IMDb TV in series form 14 years after the box-office failure of 'Stormbreaker.'

Hollywood accounting ledgers are packed with presumptive film franchises that, owing to fickle audiences (and cinematic flaws), barely started (Eragon, The Golden Compass) or never finished (The Chronicles of Narnia, Divergent).

As it does with all things entertainment, TV has been picking up the slack. His Dark Materials is chugging along at HBO and the BBC, Chronicles of Narnia has had a TV series in development at Netflix for a while and, after failing on the big screen, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events was reconceived at Netflix to general acclaim.

By almost any standard, 2006's Stormbreaker (or Alex Rider: Stormbreaker in the United States) was a disaster. The feature adaptation of Anthony Horowitz's well-liked espionage saga failed to make back even a modest budget and earned reviews that, at best, called the star-studded — Ewan McGregor! Damian Lewis! Alicia Silverstone! Mickey Rourke! Bill Nighy! — movie "forgettable."

Welcome to the streaming revolution, Alex Rider. The new TV series bearing the teenage spy's name premieres on Friday on Amazon's IMDb TV platform and it has already been renewed for a second season, meaning that audiences can feel some liberty to get invested. And as for the series itself? It's fine! The decision was made to double down on exposition for this reintroduction to Alex Rider and his undercover world, which leads to long stretches of narrative clunkiness. But it feels like a reasonable eight-episode set-up for a fun series. Plus, maybe if people tune in for this launch, somebody will see fit to give the budget a necessary boost.

For those who don't know, Alex Rider (Otto Farrant) is a normal London teen, bored by his banker uncle Ian (Andrew Buchan) and attentive housekeeper Jack (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo), but content to hang out with geeky buddy Tom (Brenock O'Connor), holding movie nights and sneaking out to parties.

Alex thinks his uncle is beyond dull even though Ian has taken him on trips around the globe, helped him get training in Krav Maga and taught him a strange assortment of skills that make sense when he discovers that Uncle Ian is part of an intelligence operation called Department of Special Operations. Alex meets the head of the DSO (Stephen Dillane's Alan Blunt) under tragic circumstances, and he's soon enlisted into the family business because the DSO needs somebody capable of infiltrating a mysterious school called Point Blanc. Nestled in the remote reaches of the French Alps, Point Blanc takes the troubled spawn of the wealthy elite and trains them into becoming responsible members of society. But guess what? Point Blanc is harboring some dark secrets and although getting into the school might be reasonably simple, getting out surely will not be.

Since Stormbreaker was the first book in Horowitz's series — 13 tomes and counting — writer Guy Burt (The Bletchley Circle) has skipped ahead to the second novel, fittingly titled Point Blanc. He has, however, kept the TV show as an origin story and, as a result, Alex Rider spends a lot of time establishing its premise, establishing its premise and establishing its premise again. The first two episodes are almost all introducing Alex and his background. The third episode is about positioning and preparing Alex for being a spy and getting into Point Blanc. The fourth episode is all about introducing Point Blanc and its students and teachers.

That means that the actual seasonal plot of Alex Rider doesn't really kick in until the fifth episode. It isn't like the early episodes are exactly tedious — just that every time you think you've figured out how the pieces are aligned, Burt picks them up, starts over again and even, in each situation, has to introduce a full cast of supporting players whom you could easily convince yourself you were supposed to invest in.

A lot of the 21st-century geopolitical subtext and British colonialist undertones, lifted from the Ian Fleming James Bond books that mark the obvious inspiration, have been stripped away, but the storytelling stops and starts distract from how little Alex Rider has to say about literally anything. It also may keep you from realizing that especially in those first five hours, the suspense is limited and the action set pieces are close to non-existent. Only in the seventh and eighth episodes does Alex Rider become exciting, with one very fun snowboarding sequence and a twisty finale that effectively kept me guessing.

The stunts are minimal, the high-tech gizmos sparse — the movie was giddy about its stunts and gewgaws — and the effects kept to a minimum, but Alex Rider feels more limited than cheap. The creepy institutional grime of Point Blanc is a good piece of production design and the series navigates around contemporary London with a fine sense of place.

I'm not sure if the cast could use some elevating or if the problem is just that the narrative shell game leaves some very good actors underserved, especially Dillane, venerably stern and little else, or McClure, cautiously concerned and little else. I can't tell if Adékoluẹjo is miscast and wooden as an American caregiver or if the character simply doesn't make much sense thus far. As the series' primary villains, Haluk Bilginer, Ana Ularu and Thomas Levin don't pack a lot of menace, though Ularu comes the closes to embodying a threat. Might it just be that Alex isn't yet hero enough to be paired opposite real adversaries?

Farrant's performance is a work-in-progress as well. The finale, with a characterization element I won't spoil, was the first time I thought, "That guy is really solid," but I never found him a liability, which gives Alex Rider a big advantage over Stormbreaker. O'Connor, oddly, has more variations to play despite a part that could easily have just been an annoying, movie-quoting normie best friend.

It will be interesting to see where Burt and Alex Rider go from here and whether or not the show's success leads to more resources. I still like the potential for television to rescue underwhelming cinematic franchises and Alex Rider offers a template for future one-book-per-season reboots. It's an approach I hope Amazon can make work on Jack Reacher, a literary series that requires much less exposition.

Cast: Otto Farrant, Stephen Dillane, Vicky McClure, Benock O'Connor, Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo, Ace Bhatti, Haluk Bilginer, Howard Charles, Nyasha Hatendi, Ana Ularu

Created By: Guy Burt, from the book by Anthony Horowitz

Premieres Friday, November 13, on Amazon's IMDb TV.