Mark Wahlberg plays an unhappily-retired athlete who teams up with a stray dog for one last gruelling competition

Arthur The King

Source: Lionsgate

‘Arthur The King’

Dir: Simon Cellan Jones. US. 2023. 106mins

In recent years, Mark Wahlberg has devoted much of his energy to making inspirational true stories, often playing noble everymen seeking redemption or transcendence. Arthur The King fits the mould but also illustrates its limitations, following an ageing athlete determined to take one last stab at winning a championship — along the way befriending an injured dog who becomes his loyal companion. Despite some gorgeous Dominican Republic locales, this sports drama oversells its emotional moments, with Wahlberg now painfully familiar in the role of a regular guy who learns important life lessons while proving his heroism and selflessness.

This sports drama oversells its emotional moments

Opening in the US on March 15, with a UK release planned for the following week, Arthur The King should appeal to fans of Wahlberg, who is joined by Simu Liu and Nathalie Emmanuel. The tear-jerking material could play well with adult audiences, especially those who love dogs, although mixed reviews may hound the picture.

Set in 2018, the film stars Wahlberg as Michael, a retired adventure racer — an athlete who competes with a team by traversing treacherous terrain for hundreds of miles, with each of the teammates biking, climbing, hiking, kayaking, ziplining or running. As celebrated as he once was, Michael is tormented that he never won any of these gruelling, days-long races. And so he brings together a new racing team: expert climber Olivia (Emmanuel); experienced navigator Chik (Ali Suliman); and former teammate Leo (Liu), a hothead who is now more concerned with bolstering his personal brand. They travel to the Dominican Republic for the Adventure Racing World Championship, unaware that their destiny will soon intertwine with that of a wounded street dog who takes an interest in them.

The film is adapted from Mikael Lindnord’s memoir, with several key details changed – including the main character’s name and the location of the championship race. Director Simon Cellan Jones, who previously teamed up with Wahlberg for listless 2023 action-comedy The Family Plan, emphasises the physical and mental demands of adventure racing, which can leave athletes dehydrated, injured or exhausted. Arthur The King highlights the sport’s fascinating aspects, especially the fact that racers don’t have to follow a set path — as long as they reach the next race marker, they can go any way they want, including over mountains or through thick forests. This introduces an element of strategy as Michael and his team sometimes take risky shortcuts in order to get ahead of their competitors. 

One of the film’s best sequences involves one such shortcut: a harrowing zipline ride that may cause viewers with vertigo to experience white-knuckle anxiety. Editor Gary D. Roach and cinematographer Jacques Jouffret give the set piece ample tension that is juxtaposed against the majestic wonders of the jungle. 

But the picture starts to sag once this stray dog enters Michael’s life. After feeding him a few meatballs early in the race, Michael is astonished to see the same dog hundreds of miles later. Impressed with the stray’s tenacity, Michael dubs him Arthur and anoints him the team’s unofficial fifth member. Quickly, the dog becomes an obvious metaphor for Michael, who himself feels abandoned by the world ever since he walked away from adventure racing. Arthur The King views Arthur as little more than a cuddly narrative device meant to underline how Michael needs to give up the sport and embrace the loving family he has waiting for him at home. (Juliet Rylance does what she can as the one-note supportive spouse.)

Those who have seen Joe Bell or Father Stu will recognise the performance Wahlberg gives here, exuding simple decency and underdog spirit. The Oscar-nominated actor possesses an earnest likability, but the familiarity of this sort of role has begun to reap diminishing returns, creating a predictability that makes it fairly easy to guess how this particular race will be run. Michael may be a born leader but he is not an especially interesting or complex one, although the easy rapport Wahlberg has with his human co-stars helps. Elsewhere, Liu reveals some of the same easy charm he brought to Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings and Barbie, and Emmanuel lends her character a gritty earthiness.

But true to its title, Arthur The King eventually focuses on their canine companion. The film gets especially shameless in its final reels, putting Arthur in danger so that Michael will have to make a crucial split-second decision. This being a Mark Wahlberg picture — the actor also produced — goodness will prevail. But rather than truly being inspiring or moving, Arthur The King manipulates and frustrates. Adventure racers may be encouraged to forge their own path, but this film is far from trailblazing.

Production companies: Tucker Tooley Entertainment, Canton Entertainment, Municipal Pictures 

International sales: Sierra/Affinity, 

Producers: Tucker Tooley, Mark Canton, Courtney Solomon, Tessa Tooley, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson 

Screenplay: Michael Brandt, based on the book Arthur: The Dog Who Crossed The Jungle To Find A Home by Mikael Lindnord 

Cinematography: Jacques Jouffret

Production design: Mailara Santana

Editing: Gary D. Roach 

Music: Kevin Matley

Main cast: Mark Wahlberg, Simu Liu, Juliet Rylance, Nathalie Emmanuel, Ali Suliman, Bear Grylls, Paul Guilfoyle