The big internal debate I’m having while writing this review of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is determining if it’s just preposterously bad or all-time bad.
Either way it’s easily one of the year’s worst films. It’s so groan-worthy awful that it’s actually insulting to its target teen demographic, who despite a higher threshold for mediocrity than most, definitely deserve better.
After her mother (Lena Headey, Dredd) vanishes, Clary (Lily Collins, Mirror Mirror) discovers everything she thought she knew about her life is an elaborate fabrication once she encounters a trio of tattoo-clad, leather-wearing warriors — siblings Isabelle (Jemima West) and Alec (Kevin Zegers, Dawn of the Dead) and their leader, Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), who sets Clary’s heart aflutter in a way that her best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) never could.
Turns out Clary is part of an ancient group of demon hunters with some measure of super powers and the turncoat demon hunter Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Match Point) needs her skills to unlock a secret that will unleash demons on the world. And worse, her “uncle” Luke (Aidan Turner, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) may have a feral dark side to him and be after her as well.
Bower’s got a fascinating screen presence and he exudes the coolness you’d want in your edgy, emo protagonist, but Sheehan makes for a solid slightly nerdy regular romantic rival for Clary’s affections even if it clearly wants to rekindle the Team Edward/Team Jacob dynamic.
Debuting screenwriter Jessica Postigo tackles the screenplay based off of Cassandra Clare’s novel. Experienced screenwriters have trouble translating popular books into good films and this is too daunting a task for a newcomer especially one prone to using an instantly familiar plot twist to anyone who’s seen a certain iconic movie franchise.
Postigo seemingly tries to work in every subplot that Clare covered in her book, but it results in audience information overload. There’s no sense of what plot points and characters are significant and what’s casually mentioned just for the sake of including it from the book. You can see the framework for a good movie, but it just isn’t realized at all. Some of the dialogue is so flat out terrible you feel bad for the actors trying to make it work.
Director Harald Zwart isn’t a name that would instantly set off your bad movie alert, but he’s had some awful films on his resume including The Pink Panther 2 and Agent Cody Banks. He can add a new one to his list with this one largely because he doesn’t seem to be on the same page with Postigo in terms of the film’s tone. Some scenes are written seriously, but Zwart stages them as if he was doing a spoof on teen romance dramas or a high school theater production.
It’s actually more enjoyable to watch this not like a serious teen action/romance drama, but more of a soap opera — like a goofier, lamer version of Passions — in desperate need of a laugh track.
To his credit, Zwart doesn’t get lost when its time for straightforward action scenes and does an admirable job with the fights. And Zwart and his special effects team make the film look like it cost double the reported $60 million budget so at least the Mortal world looks good.
The best aspect of the film may simply be that it gave Rhys Meyers, rumored to be cast in Star Wars Episode VII, a well choreographed sword fight to showcase how easily he could handle playing a Jedi or Sith.
The film has a runtime of 130 min., but it truly feels much, much longer.
Film distributor Screen Gems has shown amazing confidence in the property and filming for the second installment, The Mortal Instruments: City of Ashes, is set to begin in the fall. With its budget and a reasonable large enough fan base, City of Bones may actually succeed at the box office, but this film won’t be considered entertaining for mere mortals.