With its dark underpinnings, collection of hot supernatural dudes, and of course one fierce central heroine, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones has always looked like just another in a string of lazy Twilight knock-offs. And perhaps there's some truth to that on the surface, but there's a richer mythology and a completely different Gothic tone to Cassandra Clare's book series and it translates beautifully onto the screen. But despite a gorgeous cover model cast and magnificent production design, the film falls victim to the same clichés that make us snicker at the genre, and sadly nobody seems to be in on the joke.
Haunting cathedrals, ancestral weapons, and dark mystic aura pulled right out of the Dark Ages give the film a feel that's similar to Harry Potter and Beautiful Creatures, two of the more creatively successful YA adaptations to date. They also happen to have strong, aggressive, take-charge lead characters, which sums up Clary Fray (the cherubic Lily Collins), the center of a mystical world full of vampires, werewolves, demons, and angelic warriors in extremely fashionable leather bondage gear. Fortunately the look is back in style. Clary has begun to see strange symbols that others, like her "stuck in the friend zone" pal Simon (Robert Sheehan) can't set their sights on. Her mother Jocelyn (Lena Headey) clearly knows something but is hesitant to divulge it, keeping Clary in the dark most of her life.
A night of clubbing (it's what those magical folks do, apparently) goes terribly wrong when Clary witnesses a murder, one that again, nobody else can see. She comes to learn that the killers are a sect of Shadowhunters, led by the pouting and brooding rock star bad boy Jace Weyland (Jamie Campbell-Bower). Shadowhunters are half-angels charged with fighting evil demons while looking extremely cool doing it. With all the high heels and Goth leather straps it's a wonder they can fight anything, but fight they do, and often, with magical tattoos that give them power. Clary discovers she also is a Shadowhunter, but was raised as a regular human, referred to in derogatory fashion as Mundanes. When Jocelyn is kidnapped by a couple of goons (Kevin Durand, and the other played by ex-WWE superstar Kurrgan) looking for a magical chalice, Clary teams up with Jace to find her, in-between flirty glances and romantic mishaps. She's pretty; his cheekbones are otherworldly; she's feisty; he's arrogant and aloof; they both have parental issues; it's nothing we haven't seen before but Collins and Campbell-Bower have a snarky chemistry together that works....up until the moment they kiss. It's a forced and painfully unfunny thing, where she slips and falls into Jace's arms and they lock lips, followed by sprinklers. It should be an important moment for Jace and Clary's relationship, which had been mostly antagonistic, but instead it's a joke, yet the actors continue to play it straight.
That scene is like the polar opposite of a "Eureka!!" moment, like a light switch gone off in somebody's brain, and the film descends into messy, meaningless action with far too many characters and not enough explanation for what is going on. The urgency with which the film jumps into the plot without slogging through endless exposition is actually one of its finer points, other YA adaptations could take a lesson, but when the villain Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) shows up, with his lies and double-crossings, it just gets too confusing to keep track of. It doesn't help that Valentine, who has been talked up like he's Voldemort or something, turns out to be kind of a wuss. Other than Jace, Clary, and poor unfortunate Simon we're never given a reason to care about most of the other characters, which becomes a major issue when they're all in one form of peril or another. What becomes clear is that other than a few visual bells and whistles, there's not that much here that stands out.
A look at director Harald Zwart's resume wouldn't peg him as a natural special effects wiz, but art design is a strong suit. He presents an ominous, dark side to Manhattan that we've never seen in the genre, and even some of the monstrous demons look quite impressive for a relatively modest budget. Best are the weapons, though, which are both medieval and futuristic. One wields a whip better than Indiana Jones could ever dream.
There are six books in Cassandra Clare's franchise, plus a set of prequels called The Infernal Devices, and producers are so high on this film succeeding that they're moving forward on all of them. It's not enough to simply be superior to Twilight, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones needs to stand on its own and appeal to those who aren't already fans. There's a solid foundation set here that could grow into something greater, but as complete film it makes for a better fashion show.