Weirdly enough, this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink supernatural young adult tale actually starts strong and only begins to plummet when the true villain of the story is revealed. It's not a secret who is behind all of the evil doings in New York City, but he doesn't really come into play until a little after the halfway point, at which point the whole film starts to crumble away at an alarming pace.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES is latest attempt at kicking off a young-adult franchise based on a series of popular books (five so far, with a sixth installment coming out in May 2014, as well as a series of prequels published and sequels announced, beginning in 2015). The story focuses on a teen Clary Fray (the lovely and sort of transparent Lily Collins, of MIRROR MIRROR fame) who begins to see strange symbols all over the city that no one else can see. The symbol plagues her so much, she even ends up drawing them in her sleep, so you know it's important. Her mother (Lena Headey) seems troubled by this revelation, and it soon becomes known that Clary is one in a long line of Shadowhunters, a society of demon hunter-killers with angels' blood in their veins and a mission to protect earth (or Downworld) from evil forces. The film is fully loaded with vampires, werewolves, warlocks, the aforementioned demons, and no zombies (because those aren't real, we are told).
For the most part, the Shadowhunters exist and do their work invisibly, but Clary can see them, and she witnesses a murder of demon in human for at the hands of Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower, from the several of the TWILIGHT films, ANONYMOUS, and as King Arthur in the recent "Camelot" TV series), who agrees to be her good-looking mentor, much to the annoyance of her long-time best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan), who is not-so-secretly in love with her, and spends much of the film being a little bitch human (or "mundane" as they're derisively called by the Shadowhunters).
As these type of films tend to do, a smattering of slightly older actors populate the supporting parts, including Jared Harris as Hodge, the keeper of the Institute, which the Shadowhunters call headquarters; CCH Pounder as a witch that lives in the apartment below Clary and her mother; and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the big bad Valentine, who is searching for an ancient chalice (called the Mortal Cup) that lends special powers to those who drink pure angel's blood from it, or something like that. Apparently many of Clary's memories have been suppressed by her mother (including the location of the Cup), and she spends a great deal of CITY OF BONES trying to get back what her mother kept from her to protect her.
The other younger characters are sadly interchangeable and spend much of the film trying to out badass each other and see which one wears black the best. Unless I heard this wrong, Alec (Kevin Zegers), one of the Shadowhunters who seems to hate Clary the most is actually gay and in love with Jace, who has eyes for Clary, thus setting up a slight variation on the traditional love triangle these franchises seem to love. I also dug Godfrey Gao's performance as Magnus Bane (known as the High Warlock of Brooklyn…I wish I were making that up), and I wish he played a slightly larger role in this film, but I'm sure we haven't seen the last of him if this series continues. There are other, more forgettable members of the cast, but life is short and their performances simply didn't distinguish themselves this time out.
As I mentioned, CITY OF BONES is actually kind of a hoot for quite a bit of its 130-minute running time, but when the most obviously secretly evil character reveals himself and unleashes Valentine onto the world, the film suffers from not living up to its own hype. Jonathan Rhys Meyers still looks remarkable for 36 (not that that's old by any measure), but he simply isn't a threat. This is supposed to be one of the truly fearful things in this universe, and watching him prance around in a leather jacket over a bare, tattooed chest didn't make me tremble in my laced-up boots.
But Rhys Meyers isn't the only problem. The various love stories (would-be and otherwise) are childish in their execution, the revelation of a couple of weird secrets are clumsy and non-sensical, and the violence in the film is often times wildly inappropriate for a PG-13 film. The blame for a lot of these flaws falls at the feet of director Harald Zwart (THE KARATE KID remake, AGENT CODY BANKS, THE PINK PANTHER 2), who is helming this movie as if he barely has a handle on understanding the material (adapted by Jessica Postigo from the Cassandra Clare novel). Join the club, buddy.
By the end of THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES, I was seriously trying to remember why I was supposed to care about whether about two-thirds of these characters needed to live or die, and I'm guessing that wasn't the intention. Fun and quirky at times, the film devolves into a scattered, pointless mess that might have been a metaphor for how teenagers' raging hormones drive them to do ridiculous things, but don't hold me to that because I the movie may have blocked my powers of analytical thought. All of this being said, I treated the film like an introductory chapter to a series I may have to settle into for a number of years. I'll admit, I'm slightly curious where things go from here, but if they don't start being relevant, there will be hell to pay.