The good news: You only have to wait 15 minutes into King Arthur: Legend of the Sword to see Charlie Hunnam shirtless. The bad news: for those first 15 minutes, you will be unable to make heads or tails of anything happening onscreen. Legend of the Sword unfolds like the sequel to a King Arthur movie no one saw.
I suppose the first 15 are the two separate prequel movies that never got made. Movie No. 1 starts with a title card explaining that man and mage lived peacefully, side-by-side, until the rise of the sorcerers led to a battle for Camelot. Buried within a sequence that includes exploding knights and elephants that shoot fireballs from their trunks (I think?), the royal mage Vortigern (Jude Law) schemes to steal the crown from his brother, Uther (played by perennial movie king, Eric Bana).
Movie No. 2 centers on young Arthur, who is raised in a brothel and trained in combat by a character called “Kung-Fu George,” as he evolves from hapless orphan to a sort of prince of thieves. Nearly 35 minutes into this thing, Legend of the Sword starts into the legend of this movie, a topsy-turvy retelling of the sword-in-the-stone tale, of the “born king,” Arthur (Hunnam), reclaiming Excalibur and sparking a rivalry with his uncle, King Vortigern.
As directed by Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch), everything plays at a raucous clip before devolving into the button-mashing frenzy of a video game, all computer generated ugliness and glossed-over grittiness. A + B, Right, Left! K.O. Finish him! There is one sequence involving Excalibur’s juju powers that is straight out of the flavor of the moment PlayStation game, and I would love to describe it, but I think it would spoil a fun moment — and honestly, I don’t know how I would even explain it if it didn’t. Each time the sword’s powers were activated, I was white guy blinking GIF.
Everyone here is game to play, though, with Hunnam turning King Arthur into a cocky a-hole in leather pants, but dammit if he doesn’t look as good as he seems to think he does. (Hunnam has two full shirtless scenes before he speaks a single line, perhaps in service of fans that were disappointed he dropped out of Fifty Shades of Grey for this. In my opinion, a good decision, as he proves himself a proper action hero.) Law hams it up, dressed in exotic furs and flaunting his villainy with bitchy flare. David Beckham shows up for a cameo and, if you manage to recognize him, provides some silly excitement.
Mostly, while watching King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, I thought of Disney. There is some wonderful creature creation here, including what is essentially a real-life Ursula that — dare I say it? — made me curious what a dark and gritty The Little Mermaid would look like. And as Hunnam’s Arthur and his future knights of the round table parkoured around Londinium, I realized we might actually be watching a prequel. Because this, surely, will be exactly what we get with Guy Ritchie’s next project: the live-action Aladdin. Just add the magic carpet.