Lily Collins plays auburn haired Clary, the supernaturally-powered heroine of “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” and spends all of her time on-screen either fighting or flirting. The latter is particularly appropriate for this film, which is based on a two-book series intended for young adolescent readers.
Appropriate because the movie itself flirts with six or eight different kinds of disaster. Luckily its director, Harald Zwart, has enough skill to hold his volatile project together and give movie-goers a more-or-less coherent cinematic thrill ride.
Not that any of it will seem new—none of it but the terminology. “City of Bones” is for girls a little older than the kids who’ll enjoy the latest Percy Jackson movie. Each of them features action in a parallel world, one which exists on this Earth but which we mundane humans don’t see. The characters who live in these alternate realities have super-powers that have come to them genetically.
But while Percy and his pals are the descendants of Olympian gods, Clary and her mob came from families of zombies, werewolves, vampires, and shadow-hunters. These last are the good guys, usually, who can not only see what’s going on in the Mortal Remains world but can fight in it to stop demons, shape-shifting monsters.
At the beginning of the film, Clary doesn’t even know this world exists. She is some sort of special case, a good gal with great personal powers that have been hidden from her by her mother (Lena Headley) through the use of a renewable spell. Now Clary begins seeing figures in the other world, including a successful attack by teen shadow-hunter Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) on what she later learns is a demon.
That night she sleep-draws hundreds of glyphs that look like neckties. This is the sign for Ma to get daughter a spell booster-shot. But Ma herself is attacked. So is her wolfish beau. And Ma disappears. So Jace takes Clary and her ordinary human boyfriend Simon into his protection and to a huge Gothic safe house.
It turns out that Ma is the keeper of an ancient cup essential to some of the shadow-hunters’ several rituals. The movie slows down here to explain itself, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to blame the indifferent sound recording (the music is always loud enough but the dialog rarely is) for my confusion about how the cup works, who holds it sacred, and what threat is represented by Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a mysterious shadow-hunter who is the chief villain of the piece.
Without understanding these details, and having been told fairly early on that some of the things characters say will not be true, I was then adrift in the story. I never knew which way was north.
But I was sort of able to follow the action—guys who protect Clary are good and the others are not good. And I made what sense I could over the romances and the family relationships. Clary has always thought of Wolfy as a sort of father, but when Valentine arrives at the safe house, he claims that he is her father.
He also claims to be Jace’s father. This makes Clary and Jace’s budding romance problematic without much pleasing Simon, who is still waiting around, hoping to win the girl’s love. Figuring this would get sorted out in the sequel, I turned my attention to what wasn’t dependent on novelist Cassandra Clare’s convoluted plot.
And what else was there for me to watch? Action, including fairly long action sequences that are developed with some basic sense by the Dutch director, who honed his skills making “One Night at McCool’s,” the second version of “The Karate Kid,” and “Agent Cody Banks.”
But there remains the question of the film’s title. “The Mortal Instruments” refers to the series. “City of Bones” is the name of a vast crypt under a mausoleum in a large cemetery. There Jace takes Clary to get information from a chorus of tall men in hoods and robes, each of the fellows having had his mouth sewed shut. I couldn’t make out what they added to the story. But in some ways the incident seemed emblematic of the film which is frequently seems to be trying to tell us things but only occasionally actually communicates.