Review: It's a ruff road to redemption in 'Arthur the King,' a well-trained tail of bonding

Move over, Messi — there’s a new canine thespian in town. Ukai, the Australian shepherd/border collie/Bouvier mix who stars opposite Mark Wahlberg in the new film “Arthur the King,” undertakes a performance that is more physically rigorous, if not dramatically suspenseful, than the one delivered by the French border collie who appeared in the Oscar-winning film “Anatomy of a Fall.”

But dog movies — and dogs in movies — aren’t just having a moment. They’ve been an important part of cinema since the silent era, and an easy hack to access audience heartstrings.

Not that Arthur’s tale needed much hacking to start with. This inspirational film is based on a true story, originally a quirky human-interest sports-news item about an Ecuadorean stray dog who bonded with a team of Swedish adventure racers in the middle of a grueling six-day trek, following them to the finish line and eventually back to Sweden with racer Mikael Lindnord. The story became a media sensation, spawning a memoir and several other books by Lindnord, as well as a short ESPN documentary and a dog rescue foundation.

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Lindnord’s 2016 memoir, “Arthur: The Dog Who Crossed the Jungle to Find a Home,” serves as the basis for “Arthur the King,” adapted by screenwriter Michael Brandt and directed by Simon Cellan Jones, who also did Wahlberg's “The Family Plan.”

This story of perseverance, suffering and salvation through physical challenges is right in Wahlberg’s current wheelhouse. The star is a deeply devout Catholic, devoted to a prayer and exercise routine that regularly starts around 3 a.m. His 2022 film “Father Stu,” in which he plays a Catholic priest who survives a motorcycle accident and is left disabled by a degenerative muscle disease, features a story of spiritual salvation through physical suffering that’s a darker side of the themes in “Arthur the King.” Nevertheless, the amount of time his character, Michael Light, spends extolling the virtues of pain and suffering while racing in the film is a clue that this is the kind of material that Wahlberg thrills to.

Transposing the setting from Sweden to Colorado, and the race from Ecuador to the Dominican Republic (where the film was shot on location), Wahlberg stars as a washed-up adventure racer who has struggled in the past with being a team player. With one last chance to prove himself, he puts together a team for the adventure-racing world championships, including an old rival, Chik (Ali Suliman), a new superstar, Olivia (Nathalie Emmanuel), and an estranged teammate turned influencer, Leo (Simu Liu). Together they’ll have to run, hike, bike, climb and kayak their way through hundreds of miles of rough terrain over the course of several days to the finish line.

Intercut with the race prep is the plight of a Santo Domingo stray pup who is starved and wounded, living on the streets. When Michael tosses him a meatball during a rest at a race transition, the dog starts following the team through jungle downpours, river crossings and ocean paddles, serving as both motivator and mascot. He even has his own Lassie moments, communicating danger to the team along the way. They dub him Arthur for his stoic, regal demeanor.

It’s fairly standard heartwarming dog fare, often treacly, calling to mind other adventurous pups in TV and film like Benji and Rin Tin Tin, but edged up with vibrant, handheld cinematography by Jacques Jouffret that gives the film a more adult, action-oriented feel (there is one CGI shot of Arthur that should have been reconsidered given the film’s grittier aesthetic).

Suffering may be Wahlberg’s raison d’être, but this is a lighter and more uplifting mode for the actor, who clearly enjoys the extreme physicality of the performance, even if the emotional tenor is well within his established star persona. And if you’re a dog person, it will be impossible to resist the tale of Arthur and his knights of extreme sports.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.