Growing up in New York City, teenager Clary Fray (Lily Collins) was always able to see strange symbols everywhere that were invisible to everyone else. On a night out with her lovelorn friend Simon (Robert Sheehan), the sight of one such symbol leads Clary into a grungy goth nightclub where she alone sees sword-wielding Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) stab a man to death. Far from a murderer, Jace and his pals Alec (Kevin Zegers) and Isabelle (Jemima West) are Shadowhunters, a race of half-angel super-warriors who inhabit an invisible castle and are dedicated to protecting the city from demons. When Clary's mother (Lena Headey) disappears in mysterious circumstances, Jace sweeps her along on an adventure involving witches, vampires and werewolves. Together they must find a way to stop rogue shadowhunter Valentine Morgenstern (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) from getting his hands on the mystical Mortal Cup. The secret of the Mortal Cup is connected to Clary who discovers she alone holds the power to save the world.
Had the teen fantasy-romance genre been popular forty years ago one could imagine Hammer Films mounting something along the lines of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. Tonally this is closer to a horror movie than the sulky romance of Twilight (2008) with a grungy Gothic aesthetic, a gloomy parallel world inhabited by Clive Barker-esque S&M freaks and monster hunters as well as a surprising amount of brutal violence. Heads get smashed between refrigerator doors or bashed against a piano, a white-eyed little demon girl is savagely mauled by a werewolf, a major character is strung up in chains and a dog morphs into an impressively terrifying tentacled monster. Such scenes are more reminiscent of the Resident Evil movies which comes as no surprise given this was produced by Constantin Film, the German studio behind the interminable zombie franchise.
Adapted from a popular series of young adult novels written by Cassandra Clare, The Mortal Instruments came and went in cinemas joining the ranks of many recent failed attempts to crack the lucrative but tricky teen fantasy film market. Stumbling throughout the initial set up the film falls into a familiar fantasy film trap being overly dense with arcane terminology. The film keeps bombarding the viewer with concepts and creatures, rituals and back-story without taking time to establish a solid emotional connection with Clary Fray. Some promising plot threads are either given short shrift in a manner that suggests the film was extensively re-edited in order to condense things to a manageable length, or else handled in a regrettably goofy manner. Notably the laughable leather-clad punk poser villains that sneer and preen without an ounce of menace. As sour-faced Billy Idol-alike hero Jace, Jamie Campbell Bower exhibits no chemistry with ostensible love interest Lily Collins. He is easily outshone by Misfits star Robert Sheehan whose own unrequited love sub-plot proves substantially more engaging.
On the positive side a charismatic Lily Collins continues to prove she is a better actress than her roles suggest, Norwegian director Harald Zwart - who made Agent Cody Banks (2003) and the remake of The Karate Kid (2010) - maintains a lively pace showcasing some very interesting ideas: (e.g. demons allergic to classical music (Bach in particular for some reason), portals to other realms, Clary's ability to bring two dimensional images to life) while the film also exhibits a pleasingly sardonic sense of humour. There are several decent gags along some admittedly unintentional comic moments. Plus the plot contrives to get lovely Lily into a sexy dress and thigh-high leather boots for a good portion of the action. Which is no bad thing. The film starts badly but steadily improves towards a third act that springs several unexpected twists. Among the more original components is the inclusion of a significant gay character who has a crush on hero Jace, though unfortunately this particular sub-plot is not too well handled. Zwart shows more confidence in the action scenes including one fight that is both funny and scary where a hitherto innocuous character transforms into a freaky demon. A banquet hall battle between vampires and werewolves also impresses. On the whole, for all its failings, this still does the whole vampires versus werewolves thing better than Underworld (2003).