Adventure Movies

Adventure Film Is a Sappy, Well-Made Dog

March 15, 20246 Mins Read

Exactly three months after the release of his comedy The Family Plan, Mark Wahlberg is back in our theaters with a second film from English director Simon Cellan Jones. Less an instance of an auteur in his grindset mode, this double dose was apparently due to production and distribution issues on Arthur the King, delaying the release of a film initially announced five years ago, filmed three years ago and then languishing since. Meanwhile, The Family Plan was filmed in late 2022 and released months later, sating any and all Jones/Wahlberg purists. The ongoing collaboration between the television director and the star of Ted and Ted 2 is gearing up to be the least exciting team-up of all time, seemingly set on crafting gratingly inoffensive films which were solely meant to be played by moms on the verge of dozing during a long flight, to rock them gently to sleep like a lullaby.

To its credit, Arthur the King—which is based on the true story of Mikael Lindnord, chronicled in his 2016 memoir Arthur – The Dog Who Crossed the Jungle to Find a Home—is a slight improvement on The Family Plan, a film which truly tests the limits of what the term “comedy” means to us as a culture. Arthur the King, on the other hand, is a frequently heartstring-tugging inspirational dog movie that does little to excel beyond acceptability yet manages to not be a complete drag to watch. It even has its share of virtues beyond watching Mark Wahlberg continue his crusade to rehabilitate his image as God’s most special little soldier. 

Wahlberg stars as Michael Light, an American version of Lindnord: A middle-aged adventure racer who’s since quieted down into domestication with his wife and daughter. Michael has completed many a tournament but never taken home gold, retiring briefly after a humiliating defeat three years prior which was mockingly shared on Instagram by fellow team competitor Leo (Simu Liu). In the movie’s present of 2014, Michael decides to assemble a team for one last rodeo and one last shot at proving himself. As ever, Wahlberg loves a story where he can play a man battling for his shot at redemption.

At the same time as Michael haphazardly preps to lead his ragtag team—climber Olivia (Nathalie Emmanuel), hobbled navigator Chik (Ali Suliman) and Instagram influencer Leo— through punishing terrain, a scruffy stray dog, hungry and beaten on the streets of Santo Domingo, wanders the city until fate leads him right to Michael’s meatballs. Taking pity on the poor animal, Michael feeds the creature prior to their race, and that act of kindness obliges the creature to trail the team on their grueling trek through the jungles of the Dominican Republic. A testament to the endurance of both animal and man, the dog, dubbed Arthur by Michael for his kingly spirit, remarkably traverses the same terrain as the humans whom he seems indebted to—in particular, a perilous zipline cross leaves the team scratching their heads as to how in the world a dog could have made its way around. Though wounds that the dog incurred from prior abuse start dragging him down, it seems that only death could separate Arthur from his saviors as they close the gap between themselves and that hallowed finish line over 400 miles from where they began.

A film all but bereft of interiority for its characters (screenplay credited to Michael Brandt), there is nevertheless a quickness to the pacing and a smooth-brained intrigue to Arthur the King’s simple story that compels the brain forth as if towards a shiny toy. Not to mention, there are gripping adventure sequences like the aforementioned zipline debacle, in which Olivia becomes trapped midway down the line and Michael must unhook himself briefly to get around her before hooking both her and her bike underneath him. 

Endowed with the sort of schmaltzy sentimentalism that feels manipulative enough to qualify as a bio-weapon, Arthur the King excels at being the sort of movie that its target audience will love, and not nearly incompetent or poorly filmed enough to truly infuriate those (like me) outside of its bubble. At the end of the day, I’m only here for Mark Wahlberg, an actor whose persona is a fascinating little fixation of mine. Seemingly done with making “real films”—once a two-time collaborator of James Gray’s, a genuinely strong comedic presence, and a forever servant of God to pay for the sins he committed by playing Dirk Diggler—the Father Stu actor is now committed to portraying muscular action heroes and/or men seeking forgiveness in forgettable films probably funded by covert oil money.

It’s possible that Wahlberg sees himself as Jesus Christ carrying the cross on his back in the form of, say, someone taking a huge paycheck to pretend to be a real-life athlete who bonds with a stray dog. Maybe doing enough Arthur the King movies will equate to enough Hail Marys to absolve him for Boogie Nights and uh, well, the hate crimes. Whether or not Wahlberg truly sees this film as another stepping stone on his path to absolution, Arthur the King is certainly better than a Lifetime movie. It’s a sappy tear-jerker that carries enough savvy filmmaking, tension and adventure thrills to coast slightly above something like A Dog’s Purpose. But it’s more appealing as another fascinating puzzle piece in one of the more compelling cases of Actor Brain currently suffered in Hollywood: Mark Wahlberg’s post-Daddy’s Home 2 career as a man fighting tooth and nail not for awards prestige but for the imaginary award of Most Repentant Man.

Director: Simon Cellan Jones
Writer: Michael Brandt
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Simu Liu, Juliet Rylance, Nathalie Emmanuel, Ali Suliman, Bear Grylls, Paul Guilfoyle
Release Date: March 15, 2024

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.

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