Lily Collins as Clary Fray
Jamie Campbell Bower as Jace Wayland
Robert Sheehan as Simon Lewis
Jemima West as Isabelle Lightwood
Kevin Zegers as Alec Lightwood
Aidan Turner as Luke Garroway
Godfrey Gao as Magnus Bane
Lena Headey as Jocelyn Fray
Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Valentine Morgenstern
Jared Harris as Hodge Starkweather
C.C.H. Pounder as Madame Dorothea
Kevin Durand as Emil Pangborn
Robert Maillet as Samuel Blackwell
Directed by Harald Zwart
Young adult oriented urban fantasy has gotten so pervasive in the post-Harry Potter world, it is possible to create tick boxes of elements–let’s not say clichés, rather battle-tested storytelling tools–which a successful, or at least popular, series should have. Secret worlds moving alongside our own; ordinary main characters yanked out of their world and shown to have secret abilities (and/or some sort of destiny) putting them on a pedestal among their peers; plot-related underdog status among the new world allowing the point of view character to be both superior and unjustly victimized; a growing sense of agency among the young characters as they take control both of their own and others’ lives; a first (or first successful) romance with someone who would normally be considered out of the main characters league.
Cassandra Clare’s “Mortal Instruments” series and its sundry spin-offs hit all of those marks, making them prime material for a big screen adaptation. Which we have with Harald (“The Karate Kid”) Zwart’s version of the first book, “City of Bones.”
Our point of view young person with a secret destiny here is Clary Fray (Lily Collins), a budding artist who discovers she is really the daughter of a Shadowhunterdemon hunters who use magic to protect the world from monstersand has inherited both her mother’s ability and the knowledge of the whereabouts of the Mortal Cup, the only thing which can make new Shadowhunters who weren’t born to the role.
So there’s that element checked. Romantic interest who shouldn’t be available but is — that one’s a little harder in film than books as there’s a baseline level of attractiveness for being a successful film actor. They do their best by casting American Eagle model-looking Jamie Campbell Bower (the “Twilight” series) as Jace Wayland, the best of the remaining Shadowhunters, who has to fight the various much larger mooks chasing Clary despite looking like he should be bouncing right off them. But he’s got the right look, which seems to be the main reason he’s in the film.
Or many of the other actors, for that fact. These types of stories always tend to be a bit shallow; it’s the nature of the beast. The test of the artist, either the novelist or the filmmaker, is to keep the surface bit which attracts the audience while delving beneath those layers into the characters themselves.
“City of Bones” isn’t particularly interested in doing that, though to be fair, part of that is a side effect of being the first film in a new series–the rules of the world have to be laid out and to make sure no audience member is lost, they have to be laid out constantly. So constantly, in fact, the film doesn’t even really have a villain until the last 20 minutes, choosing instead to place somewhat arbitrary conflicts in front of the characters to interrupt the nearly endless spouting of exposition which amounts to the bulk of their dialogue. That’s difficult to do under the best of circumstances and even moreso when most of the cast seems to have been picked for their looks as much as anything else.
Clary is one of the exceptions as she doesn’t know anything, letting her actively talk and not spout, and Collins does a good job with bringing warmth and realism to Clary’s search for her missing mother and poking good fun at things like the ridiculousness of the outfits people like the Shadowhunters wear.
In fact there’s a lot of sharp wit within “City of Bones,” particularly from Jace which occasionally manages to be halfway interesting. It tends to get wasted, however, as much of the story (when not focused on world building) spends its time on a love triangle between Clary, Jace and Clary’s best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) who has tagged along after her. Or on the love triangle between Clary, Jace and Jace’s best friend Alec (Kevin Zegers). And occasionally on Jace’s mother (Lena Headey), her best friend Luke (Aidan Turner) and her mysterious father (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who may or may not be the person after the cup to begin with.
There’s just a lot of love triangles going on is what I’m saying. It’s a big soap opera with monsters and the odd sword fight. Which, on the whole, isn’t a bad idea for a movie and Zwart’s developed a good idea for action sequences, just not enough of one for his characters,though that could be a limitation of the adaptation.
There’s enough of a glimmer that, with the set up out of the way, future stories can do away with the gristle and get into the meat of the thing, but you’ve got to get through “City of Bones” first to get there, which might not be worth it unless you’re already invested in the series.