‘Arthur the King’ Review: Mark Wahlberg Meets a New Best Friend in the Dominican Republic in Blandly Reassuring Adventure

Long gone are the days of Mark Wahlberg movies with an edge. The proudly Catholic family man, who once asked God for forgiveness for playing the scantly clad, dream-or-die porn star Dirk Diggler in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” now makes films that either hover around religious agitprop (“Father Stu”), are blandly comforting studio comedies (“Me Time”), or action adventure spectacles with no soul (“Uncharted”). In short, he’s making movies meant to inspire rather than challenge audiences these days.

“Arthur the King” certainly won’t inspire legions of new Wahlberg fans, though here is a movie that props him up as a grade-A hero onscreen. Directed by Simon Cellan Jones, this feel-good globe-trotting odyssey shares thematic overlap with all three types of movies as Wahlberg takes on the real-life role of Swedish adventure racer Mikael Lindnord (here renamed Michael Light and recast as American) who, 10 years ago while racing across Ecuador bonded along the way with a scrappy, stray street mongrel whom he named Arthur. Their perilous journey, along with Michael’s teammates, forms the emotional center of this sturdily enjoyable if emotionally uninsightful heart-tugger that aims straight down the middle of the audience for a mildly reassuring experience mostly made with families in mind.

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Which means the film should bring at least a little box office joy as parents and their kids pack in for the adventure. “Arthur the King” isn’t without its unassuming pleasures, particularly around the sweetly mannered and quietly regal (in spite of his disheveled and flesh-worn appearance) dog that joins Michael and team on their 435-mile trek across the Dominican Republic in 10 days. One that involves running, climbing, and ziplining through the DR’s alternately lush and rugged terrain, battling the elements. Though that terrain is hardly a character in itself, as the locales become anonymous and the sad-faced local people are ignored when not a means to an end for said running, climbing, and paddling.

“Arthur the King” is the sort of movie you watch with a blank stare, occasionally checking your watch, only to end up hesitantly won over by the sentimental finale — fine, you got me, there might be a slight dab of moisture on the side of my eye. Oh, and heads up: You only need Google to confirm this, but no, the dog does not die onscreen. (Arthur did eventually die in 2020 when production on this film was actually supposed to start before numerous delays and studio passings of the baton, but “Arthur the King” is set in 2018 with events from Ecuador now dramatized in the Dominican Republic.)

There is a brush with death, though, and Mikael Lindnord’s 2016 memoir “Arthur – The Dog Who Crossed the Jungle to a Find a Home” will tell you all about that. Meanwhile, in human terms, Michael (Wahlberg) lives with his wife and former racing partner Helen (Juliet Rylance) and daughter in Oahu and is no longer a bankable star (much unlike Wahlberg himself, clearly) who can earn sponsorship to fund rigorous enough training for the next round of the Adventure Racing World Series competition, which involves trekking, mountain biking, kayaking, and most of all survival on little sleep and fewer rations of food (here in the form of freeze-dried meatballs, unappetizing to the human palate perhaps but eventually irresistible to Arthur).

So Michael assembles a more hotshot cast — er, team — of elite athletes including Michael’s professional nemesis Leo (Simu Liu), whose cocksure swagger and social media following make him far more appealing to sponsors than his supposedly rusting-up competitor who’s never won a world championship before. Michael insists this 2018 trip around the DR will be his last, though, the psychology of a “one last trip around the sun” sort of heaving world-weariness toward the sun setting on one’s dreams hardly explored by Wahlberg or Michael Brandt’s serviceable screenplay.

There’s also Olivia (Nathalie Emmanuel), daughter of another climbing legend, who’s probably the closest Michael has to a friend on his team (the filmmakers don’t force the sort of sexual tension you’d expect in similar adventure movies between the two here, as this is a wholesome family film). But the characters are less human beings than people pushing themselves to the brink on a global racetrack. On the adventuresome side of things, other than the visible endurance test each of these actors underwent on location in the Dominican Republic, there’s nothing below the surface that explores the psychological effects of such tests.

In this sense, “Arthur the King” is two movies at once, as underneath the ticking clock of the film’s racing sequences is the pretty heartwarming bond between Arthur and Michael. It was enough to inspire not just the book by Lindnord, but two documentaries as well. And there’s that word “inspire” again. Simon Cellan Jones’s film — originally to be directed by “Everest” filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur, and what a much different peril story “Arthur the King” might have been — is meant to lift the spirits and fill the cockles of one’s heart, particularly with ardor for the rangy mutt of its title namesake. On those terms, it succeeds, and like Arthur himself, the results are sweet and dignified. Watch it on a flight.

Grade: C+

“Arthur the King” opens in theaters from Lionsgate on Friday, March 15.

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