“The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” hopes to be the start of a new franchise for tweens and Twihards, but the twuth is this twash is anything but a twiumph.
Maybe the author who uncorked the popular book series shouldn’t twi so hard (starting with her pen name, “Cassandra Clare.” Actually she’s Judith Rumelt.) Rumelt has overstuffed this thing to the groaning point (or maybe I was the one groaning) with so many vampires, demons, werewolves, runes, crypts, warriors, weapons and witches that it’s as if someone handed her a checklist of stuff that sells young adult fantasy fiction and she couldn’t leave anything out.
Lily Collins plays Clary, the Harry Potter-like girl growing up in Brooklyn without a dad, though given that it’s Collins I guess you’d call her Hairy Eyebrows. She’s unaware that she’s not one of us human “mundanes” (geez, Judith, when you ripped off “muggles,” you couldn’t find a word a little less similar?) but a magical Shadowhunter like the hunky blond guy (pouty lips, pouty cheekbones, even pouty hair) named Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) whom she meets after he runs his sword through someone at a nightclub.
In the first of 75 consecutive expository scenes explaining how we all got here, thousand-year-old Jace tells her about his friends, who wear neck and shoulder tats called runes, and their war with the cult of shapeshifting demons, which attacked her mother in search of an unholy grail that chief villain Valentine (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, in a dreadlocks mullet that is the only frightening thing in the movie) wants for evil purposes that are still being explained in the closing minutes of the movie.
We move on to more back story from a gay guy named Magnus (Godfrey Gao) at a sort of vampire pub who explains he’s been hypnotizing Clary for years so as to repress her memories about who she really is. Jared Harris, Jace’s Shadowhunter Scoutmaster, checks in to deliver more back story, and somewhere along the line local magical black person Dorothea (CCH Pounder), a Brooklyn witch, reads the tarot cards that reveal Clary has a deep connection with cups.
The front story, such as it is, brings battles that aren’t remotely suspenseful or involving, such as a big, silly fight with a gang of pose-y vampires. As for the inevitable hookup between the leads, it’s momentarily delayed by a dumb lovers’ quarrel: The godlike Jace actually gets jealous when he spots her platonic best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) waiting for her in her room at Shadowhunter H.Q., but Simon practically has “nerd sidekick” written on his forehead. No one over the age of 14 could possibly see him as a rival, and Jace is 986 years over the age of 14.
I think my favorite moment came when Clary, having been stuffed into a lacy little black number and thigh-highs that 1985 Madonna would have deemed too slutty, stops to ask, “How is dressing like a hooker going to bring my mother back?” Clary, you are not a person. You are a list of 13-year-old girl faves: secrets, feeling underestimated, tall blond guys in low-slung leather trousers, tats, birthdays (Clary is having one when everything starts to happen) and the bimbo Goth look.
Or maybe my favorite bit was the page of dialogue virtually lifted from “The Empire Strikes Back.” Or maybe it was when we learn Bach designed chords to annoy demons because he was a Shadowhunter himself. (Cut to portrait of Johann Sebastian wearing those neck and sleeve tats you probably didn’t notice before). One of the good guys plays some Bach to draw out a demon, then is completely unprepared when the monster emerges.
In the end, there are so many special effects — to no particular effect and with none feeling special — that I could barely catalogue what was going on. Let’s see, draw this sword away from this evil pentagram, which will close the skylight that sent a beam of light over Manhattan, which will calm the evil bats but...anyway the main action is in the other room and there are these friendly werewolves who have promised not to turn wolfy but kinda do anyway, and they’re up against these alien monsters who look like they’re made of ash and apparently freeze if you flash the right rune at them, but we don’t know that until after it happens, which just seems random. “I understand what you did, and I forgive you,” goes one of the closing lines of dialogue. Well, I don’t, and I don’t.
At the very heart of this story is a family rescue mission, which provides some relatable intimacy in otherwise grand and fantastical surroundings, however that is about as far as we can connect with this shallow and somewhat spiritless picture. There is one magical moment, however, where Clary somehow pulls a real life cup of coffee out of just an ordinary book – and as enticing as that may seem, even if it could happen in real life I still very much doubt it’d tempt me into purchasing these particular novels any time soon.
Collins is, after all, a nice girl and she looks out of place. There isn't much chemistry with Bower, either, although you may feel for Sheehan who bubbles over with passion and has nowhere to direct all that energy. For all three the mission is unclear, and with so little action and the characters so sketchily drawn, the middle part of the film sags like a bag of ectoplasm.
Although hardcore TMI fans will probably enjoy this and think it is the best thing since the last best thing they were obsessed with, for everyone else this is an average fantasy movie with a few exciting moments scattered throughout.
The most surprising thing about the movie is how much potential it has, and how little it seems to care about realizing that potential. Clary goes to a couple parties during the course of the movie, and even a fight against a horde of vampires is played like a club scene. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is the sullen wallflower that is too timid, too scared, and too bored to dance, and so it misses out on having any fun.