The first movie adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s popular urban fantasy series (S & S), The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones takes the opposite approach of “The Twilight Saga.” It emphasizes action above all else, keeping the lingering close-ups of its gooey-eyed, mismatched couple, Brooklyn artsy hipster Clarissa “Clary” Fray (Lily Collins) and the pale and petulant Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), to a clipped minimum. The producers, who previously made the “Resident Evil” action films, provide the thrill of the chase and a sprinkling of the romance.
The screenplay prowls right through Clare’s story line, covering the first 120 pages of City of Bones (2007) within a half-hour, shuffling through the chronology of events. Sixteen-year-old Clary witnesses a murder in a nightclub that no other clubbers can see, and the next day, her single mom, Jocelyn (Lena Headey, so youthful she could pass as the lead’s older sister), disappears after two thugs break into their apartment. In this knockabout sequence, Jocelyn strikes the towering men with anything she can get her hands on,
Jocelyn is a former Shadowhunter, an angel-human demon slayer, and has been protecting the Mortal Cup, which renegade Shadowhunter Valentine (the smarmy Jonathan Rhys Meyers) covets. Without it, his race is a dying breed.
Knowing that Clary’s life is in danger, Jace—a swaggering Shadowhunter—promises to protect her from Valentine’s army of shape-shifting demons, and to help her find her mom. True to his word, Jace proves to be super-acrobatic, somersaulting in the air and landing firmly on his feet, weapon in hand.
So yes, the movie’s dominated by plot instead of Clary’s discovery of her lineage—she’s part-Shadowhunter, after all—with recognizable snatches of the novel heard between the crash-and-boom special effects. The framework of the author’s romantic triangle remains, with Clary’s lovestruck best friend, the nerdy Simon (Robert Sheehan) lagging behind her and her superpowered love interest. Many of the novel’s subplots have also disappeared: Simon is not turned into a rat, for one example.
As it progresses, the movie’s production design doesn’t skimp on the creepiness, and becomes full-on gothic, with scads of skeleton bones . The demonic creatures take after the viscous, multi-jawed creatures of Alien. Yet the movie has a PG-13 intensity with a light touch of camp. Jace delivers his droll putdowns as if it exhausts him, and Clary fights off vampires in a black mini-dress with thigh-high boots, making any Bond girl proud.
However, the logic of Clare’s universe becomes muddled; Valentine simply and bluntly wants to dominate all non-humans. Motivations are abridged to set the scene for the next fight, where a couple of Shadowhunters and a tag-along Clary battle hordes of villains. With the plot pruned down to its essentials, the story’s mixture of myths and legends feels formulaic. In the climactic nocturnal showdown, the editing intercuts three different to-the-death confrontations, each prolonged, with the characters repeating the same moves. The lengthy sequence might prompt viewers to think that only the inevitable daylight will end the battle with rampaging vampires.
If this movies does, in fact, launch a franchise, it will be in no small part to the casting of the cool but debonair Campbell Bower as Jace, and for the appeal of Collins as Clary (those lips, those eyes, those eyebrows). In the meantime, it’s a passable late-summer stand-in for its core audience until the new fall CW television season begins.
Directed by Harald Zwart