Review: THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES Knows Its Audience

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
There's something to be said for a film that knows its audience. We see it in the form of adolescent boy movies all the time, movies targeted to some presumably gendered notion of what speaks to young adults of a particular disposition. The thought, I guess, is that young boy movies have robots in disguise and explosions, and young girl movies have love triangles, cooperative action moments and chaste makeout sessions.

I don't make up the rules, I just report on them.

Still, for every Twilight series that skewed overtly towards what dominant culture has designated as "female", there were the likes of the Harry Potter books that at least grasped with some sort of gender inclusion, not pandering to a particular demographic. Wizards, then, seem at least kind of less directly targeting young girls, while the Vampire shtick has certainly skewed of late towards the female-friendly from a marketing if not feminist perspective. This of course extends even to adulthood with the steamy yet conveniently accessible True Blood take on Vamps, wolves, and the choice that a girl's got-to make between the tall blonde guy and the more fuzzy brunette that we all run into on a regular basis in our everyday lives.

So, after delving into the muck with the almost satisfactory Hunger Games and the truly abysmal offering made by The Host (no, not the good one with monsters), my expectations for the marblemouthed titled Mortal Instruments were not particularly high.

Colour me pleasantly surprised, then, when I found a self-aware narrative that used all the usual tropes from this genre, including silly romance triangles, hairy biker men as wolves, dreamy British accents and a mix of bondage and goth gear, and all seems to make it work pretty well.

Part of the film's success is owed to a smart script that is aware without ever been smarmy or jokey with audience expectations. Simply by calling attention to some of the tired elements of this kind of story, we can settle in on a kind of contract with the filmmakers - they know we know what they're doing, so we can give just a bit more suspension of disbelief at the more over-the-top moments when previously we weren't treated as neophyte idiots new to this game. Vampires, witches, and werewolves? That's no problem, but Zombies? The film playfully tells us those don't exist, silly.

The cast is also up to the task, bringing an intensity to their roles without devolving into farce. Lily Collins takes the lead, and is both believable and charming in even the most outrageous of moments, even looking the age for the part. The improbably cheekboned Jamie Campbell Bower almost rises to the level of Carey Elwes in the Princess Bride, no small feet. Other performers, including Kevin Zeggers, makes some interesting turns, and I do kind of adore the work that Kevin Durand has been putting out of late, finding certain directors really bringing out the best of that man clearly in need of a decent buddy cop picture to raise his stakes further.

Speaking of stakes, the usual shtick, even the vampire stuff, is shot in pretty interesting ways, with drabs of gothic castle architecture contrasted by slick nightclub scenes. We've got a whole taxonomy - "mundanes", "shadowhunters", "silent brothers" - that do well to at least give the impression of a larger universe in which the story takes place. In the end, we've got yet another case of the torn feelings of a central female protagonist between her two male suitors, but credit where it's due, the film does toy with the Luke/Leia/Han dynamic in interesting and provocative ways.

In the end, this is a film that knows what it wants to be and to what audiences it wishes to cater to, and does so in a way that I found surprisingly, often shockingly engaging. Things that should annoy in lesser films are improbably pulled off in this one, elements that feel tired and overused almost given new life. Sure, it's comical that I spent much of the film convinced that Lena Headey was Kiera Knightley, but that's what you get for having a quivering upper lip on screen.

Credit where it's due, I didn't hate City of Bones, and had every expectation I would given the recent track record for this type of project. It's hardly a ringing endorsement, to be sure, but it's a film that even this jaded anti-fan of this kind of dreck found himself rooting for in time, swayed by strong performances, a decent story, and a sense that at least for much of its running time the film pretended I wasn't a complete moron.
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  • Michael_456123

    "The improbably cheekboned Jamie Campbell Bower almost rises to the level of Carey Elwes in the Princess Bride, no small feet."

    I believe that should read "The improbably cheekboned Jamie Campbell Bower almost fills the shoes of Carey Elwes in the Princess Bride, no small feet."

  • That is a much better pun, kudos...

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