And so the search for a blockbuster of a film franchise appealing to the lucrative tween market continues. Alas, MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES is too much of a mess to warrant a sequel, even though the young-adult novels on which they are and would be based are bona fide hits with their target audience, and even some above that age. A clunky script and even clunkier direction sink this endeavor despite the best efforts of its terrific cast.
On paper, and in book form, it is a tween dream come true. Teenager Clary Fray lives a typical life in a shabby chic part of Brooklyn with her single mom, Jocelyn (Lena Heady), a struggling artist. She has a cute best friend in Simon (Robert Sheehan), who is not so secretly in love with her. Itís all coffee houses and hanging out until Clary doodles a peculiar symbol that sends her mother into a tizzy, prompting momís own cute best friend, Luke (Aidan Turner) to opine that itís time to tell Clary the truth. What that truth might be must wait, because even though Clary spent the previous night sleep-drawing the symbol all over her room, and even though it shows up in her cappuccino, and on the sign to a Goth club where she saw very odd and very bad things happen, Jocelyn doesnít think her baby girl is ready. Thatís when Jocelyn, suffering a home-invasion by tattooed barbarians and a dog who isnít, swallows a potion rather that tell them what they want to know. That would where the cup is. And, no, we donít know yet what that means, but it will loom large once itís revealed.
And so the adventure begins, with Clary discovering her true identity as a Shadowhunter, and a host of special powers, including being able to see Jace (Jaimie Campbell Bower), the pouty-lipped and sulky blonde hottie who is invisible to Simon and to everyone else except the witch next door (C.C. Pounder), who reveals little but allows for some much-needed exposition by Jace. There is also forbidden love, dangerous secrets, werewolves, vampires, witches, warlocks, a portal that transcends dimensions, and Jared Harris as Hodge, who runs the clubby gathering place for Shadowhunters, The Institute, sort of the way his father, Richard, ran Hogwarts as the first Dumbledore, but without the elaborate robes, beard, or half-moon glasses. The actors, though taking it all very seriously, are subject to stilted dialogue and an irksomely aggressive score that swoops in to give its opinion, loud and long, on every fleeing emotion depicted on screen. Collins and Sheehan are suitably sweet, but Bower is the stuff of the bad boy that makes the hearts of adolescent girls go pitter pat. Ironic, stoic, with a half-sneer on those pouty lips, yet just vulnerable enough in the black leather required for his profession to steam things up appropriately.
If only the film could overcome a painful sense of lethargy. Itís one thing to wallow amid the intricate Gothic splendor of The Institute, where Shadowhunters like Jace and his pals who, of course, hate Clary, gather to fight their never ending battle with evil, or a secret subterranean realm where dangerous ceremonies are performed by robed denizens more statue that animate. Itís quite another to wallow when fiery demons are swirling with evil intent, or a devil dog is running amok in an otherwise unremarkable Brooklyn apartment. The action sequences never quite attain the level of thrilling, though Jonathan Rhys-Meyers boldly vamps it up as the (very tightly) leather-clad villain of the piece, leaping over banisters and banging heads against piano keyboards in a desperate attempt to quench good once and for all in a steaming vat of evil.
The best bits in the film are the ones that made the transition from the book unscathed. Bach as the antidote to demons, a werewolf taking offence at being expected to put his out the window of a moving car, the High Warlock of Brooklyn revealed as a decadent partymeister in glitter eyeliner and arch ennui, not to mention the whole idea of a secret world that exists in wonderful detail, but seen only by the elect.
THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES ties up several plot points before finally shutting up, but, of course, not all. Those would be the fodder for the next installment, CITY OF ASHES, that rumor has it is already in pre-production. Sigh.