Your mother’s been kidnapped by demons. The world is being torn apart at the seams. As a hero with a special gift, you have only one option: it’s Date Night!
I remember the first time I saw an entire bookstore section labeled, “Teen Supernatural Romance.” I squished my mouth over to one side and wondered, as I’m sure I will again, what the world is coming to. Harry Potter had reinterpreted the powerful wizards of Tolkien into a mass of befuddled children, Twilight had made vampires into glittery peaceniks, and Percy Jackson took Greek mythology and turned it on its head.
When I was their age I was watching Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis have their way with commies and terrorists, and I had to walk two miles uphill in the snow to do it.
The truth is, my generation had movies like Scream, The Craft, and more Final Destinations than you can count. The genre we chose to water down and repopulate with teenagers was just a little bit different.
All of which is a pretty long lead-up to talking about the The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, a title I assume was constructed using magnetic poetry. It’s never explained what a mortal instrument is or why the city is so bony, although most of the main characters could stand to eat a sandwich.
We begin with young Clary Fray, a teenager whose main desire in life is to sneak into a real New York City club on her birthday. She’s been drawing strange symbols and the club she stumbles upon has one of these on its signboard. She’s allowed in, only to witness a supernatural murder that is supposed to be invisible to mortals.
There’s a reason for this – Clary has abilities hidden from her by her single mother, who is subsequently captured by demons. Fairly quickly, she’s running from demons herself, with cynical, nerdy best friend Simon and moody, angelic protector Jace (the murderer from the club) in tow.
You can feel City of Bones squeezing extra pieces of the novel on which its based into what’s on-screen like its sitting at Thanksgiving dinner and talking itself into a fourth serving of everything, double the potatoes. Its major weak point is smack dab in the middle, when the action freezes so Clary can figure out whether she likes Simon or Jace. Her choice pays off unexpectedly later on, but it’s still an abrupt shift in tone when you just survived a fight with 100 vampires.
Those vampires feel like they could tear you up, by the way, as does a dog-demon which looks like it just slurp-crawled its way from John Carpenter’s The Thing into Clary’s apartment. It’s a testament to director Harold Zwart (The Karate Kid remake) that he overcomes budget CGI and iffy choreography to deliver good action-horror. Crow demons and a motorcycle gang of werewolves join the action later on, and each feels just the right amount of different and alien.
Lily Collins, who plays Clary, is a find. She has a natural, unabashed delivery – nervous tics and all – that’s reminiscent of Ellen Page. She can be opinionated and forceful without straining for it, which does a lot to ground the eccentricities of the film around her.
Lena Headey, who plays Clary’s mother, gets only a single scene with Collins, but from 300 to the Terminator and Game of Thrones television shows, Headey’s made a career of playing ferocious, capable mothers. She’s the kind of actress who can tell you everything you need to know about a character in just a few scenes.
Another standout is Jared Harris, who plays Dumbled- I mean Hodge, the equivalent of headmaster to the group of demon-hunting Shadowhunters that Clary ends up joining. It’s fitting, too, given that he’s the son of original Dumbledore actor Richard Harris, who died shortly after completing the second Harry Potter film. You’re most likely to recognize Jared Harris from playing a brilliantly threatening Professor Moriarty opposite Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes in A Game of Shadows.
Where the film truly excels is in consequence. Harry Potter, for all its brilliance, rarely feels threatening. I could set a watch by how often Harry finds himself in an impossible predicament and is saved by someone else. Occasionally, Clary gets a helping hand, but she’s usually saving herself, even if she has to blow up her apartment Jason Bourne-style to do it. That’s a hero I can root for. What makes that clunky middle section work is that I’d already seen Clary at home in her element – saving the day through explosions. Huh, maybe things haven’t changed all that much from Schwarzenegger and Willis, after all.
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is a mess of a film. I liked it a heck of a lot. If “Teen Supernatural Romance” or action/horror spark your interest, you’ll enjoy it. It’s rated PG-13. The violence isn’t any worse than you’ll see in the rest of the genre, but it is better done.