Derek Winnert

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones *** (2013, Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Robert Sheehan, Kevin Zegers, Jemima West, Lena Headey) – Movie Review


Teenage girls (and a few boys) will be in heaven with this flashy special-effects-led Twilight meets Harry Potter fantasy adventure, with a non-stop breathless rush of magic, action, effects and romance. It’s all set in New York’s creepy dark side that looks uncannily like an 80s nightclub.

Based on Cassandra Clare’s bestselling novel, Harold Zwart’s movie focuses on the beautiful but feisty Clary Fray (Lily Collins), who thinks she’s just one more ordinary Brooklyn teenager (apart from being incredibly beautiful but feisty of course) till she goes to a club and meets Jace Wayland (Jamie Campbell Bower). A man of mystery and, apparently, also of charisma, Jace promptly hunts down and kills a demon. Well, that’s quite an entrance and conversation starter! Clary suddenly realises that she appears to be the only person witnessing this, a sign she’s not normal after all.


Jace is way far from normal. He’s got funny eyes, a funny face, and funny long hair. He’s in fact a Shadowhunter, part of a secret band of half-angel warriors. Luckily for us humans (I’m assuming you’re human), it’s his job to protect humanity in the aeons-old battle against demonic forces. Whew, so we’re going to be OK, I guess, but it’ll be a near thing what with these demonic forces and all.

At the very start, Clary’s poor mom Jocelyn (Lena Heady) is viciously attacked and abducted from their home, forced to run away to escape her husband Luke (Aidan Turner) and save her daughter’s life. So Clary and her bespectacled but undeniably cute and perky best friend Simon Lewis (Robert Sheehan) unite to try to find her mom and get her back.


This brings them to have to link up with the exotically tasty Jace to fight the demons existing in another, alternate world beneath the city, helpfully called Downworld. It’s a lively sort of place, seemingly much more fun than the real New York, populated with werewolves, demons, warlocks vampires and all manner of creatures and monsters thrown in willy-nilly from the manual of mythical beasties.

It turns out, as you’ve probably already guessed, that Clary possesses mystical abilities, and of course she is a Shadowhunter too. But Mom has conveniently arranged for a spell to be cast on Clary so she can’t remember her old connections. I don’t think I’ve yet mentioned that Clary’s ‘dad’ Luke is in fact a werewolf named Lucien Graymark, leader of a New York pack of wolves. Fortunately, he’s actually devoted to her mom and has only seemingly deserted Clary. So that’s going to be OK.


So, as the plot shifts up a gear and gains momentum, Clary, Jace and Simon then find themselves on a quest to retrieve the Mortal Cup, aided by a couple of quite attractive-looking Shadowhunters, Isabelle Lightwood (Jemima West) and Alec Lightwood (Kevin Zegers).

But then the plot has to stop dead in its tracks for some demure, old-fashioned lovey-dovey. Poor simple Simon is just a Mundane, undeniably mortal, and Clary is irresistibly drawn to the sexy, interestingly scar-covered Jace. After all, Clary and Jace are the same kind, and it might be that they’re even closer than they think. All this stirs Simon up into an internal turmoil of bitter jealousy. Well, it would, wouldn’t it? Clary is hot. Simon doesn’t really look the type, does he? But he is, apparently.


So what we have here is a derivative Twilight-style romantic tug-of-love triangle between species set against a Harry Potter-style magical background. Fans of both series will find plenty to enjoy here. It’s only part one of this series, so it’s early days. But it so far it feels a bit hand-me-down and deja vu, and it kind of lacks the brio and unmissable entertainment value of Twilight and Potter.

It’s too busy setting up its characters and situations, and sending in an over-kill glut of action and effects (fine though they are), to be truly memorable. In its desperation to please, it makes the mistake of always going for the exciting over the eerie and haunting. This keeps things relentlessly lively but not the special authentic stuff of dreams and nightmares. The movie may seem to be over-long at 130 minutes, but it’s definitely good value, quite a lot of fun and entertaining.


The actors are up for the challenge. Collins makes an excellent job of the heroine, pretty and credible, Bower is suitably troubled and out-of-this world, the two of them establishing the kind of intriguing characters that make you want to follow their fates to the next movie. Sheehan’s more appealing, and just more human (duh, he’s a Mundane!) and you really feel for him when he isn’t getting the girl’s full attention.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers is forced to over-play his hand in an OTT turn as the film’s ultimate villain, Valentine, who has a kind of crypto-neo-Nazi-style radical agenda to produce more Shadowhunters and wipe out the Downworlders, leaving all humans to die unprotected from demons. That’s a tall order of evil for any actor to play, but it perhaps needed someone like Ian McKellen or Bill Nighy to pull it off.


Then, unfortunately, the romance is very soppy, with the actors valiantly battling sickly dialogue that gets unintentional laughs. I know it’s aimed at teenage girls, but it’s really cringeworthy. And then there’s a gay romantic subplot like you get in Interview with the Vampire. That could be fun, but the gay love felt by warlock Magnus Bane (Godfrey Gao) for Shadowhunter Alec Lightwood (Kevin Zegers) doesn’t come to anything very much. Maybe the sequel will explain its place in the saga and give Gao and Zegers something to do apart from stare at each other. These two could enter and win a gay staring contest!

The action is fast and furious, but stirring in too many special effects slightly spoils the broth. The script seems derivative, with no new ideas anywhere, but it makes a reasonable job of stirring up the old ingredients for a tasty enough stew.

Dutch director Zwart’s credits include Agent Cody Banks and The Karate Kid, which must be why he got the job here, but also the 2001 gem One Night at McCool’s. So the man has talent.

It must have disappointed at the box office. On a $60million budget, it took only $31million in the US.

© Derek Winnert 2013 Movie Review

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