Review | ‘Arthur the King,’ with Mark Wahlberg and a cute dog, is a royal letdown

(1.5 stars)

As the disembodied commentary of Bear Grylls emphasizes in “Arthur the King,” adventure racing is an exercise in improvisation. A ragtag group of athletes kayak, climb, cycle and sprint through the wilderness from checkpoint to checkpoint in this fact-based film, but how they and their newfound canine companion navigate the course is all about their intuition and capacity for taking risks.

Regrettably, there are no gambles in this crossbreed of sports movie and doggy drama that dutifully — and lazily — stays on course from beginning to end. Heartstrings are tugged, dogs are adored and it’s all inoffensively inspirational. Plus, any animal lover will be hard-pressed not to shed a tear or two upon seeing an imperiled pup come to be lovingly embraced. But amid the perfunctory characters and dumbed-down dialogue, director Simon Cellan Jones and screenwriter Michael Brandt lose this race by carving out the safest path.

Adapted from “Arthur: The Dog Who Crossed the Jungle to Find a Home,” a book by Swedish racer Mikael Lindnord, “Arthur the King” changes our protagonist’s nationality — meet Mark Wahlberg’s all-American underdog Michael Light — and fictionalizes many of the circumstances around which Lindnord met his furry pal during the 2014 Adventure Racing World Championship in Ecuador. (The movie is set at a 2018 race in the Dominican Republic.)

Still, the broad strokes of the tale stay the same. As Michael and his team rest between stages in the Dominican jungle, he tosses a meatball to a stray dog he comes to call Arthur (played by Ukai, a certifiable good boy). Before he knows it, he has inadvertently recruited a fifth team member for the hundreds of miles of treacherous trekking to come.

But that union doesn’t occur until halfway through “Arthur the King,” which must trudge through a swamp of muddied exposition before picking up speed. As established by a brief prologue, set at a 2015 race that went awry, Wahlberg’s Michael is perceived as the best adventure racer to have never won an event. Leave it to Grylls, whose play-by-play is oddly omnipresent during races that don’t appear to be televised, to offer an eye-rolling summation of Michael’s reputation: “Some might say he’s his own worst enemy.”

When we catch up with Michael three years later in Colorado, he’s seemingly living a life of domestic bliss, raising a sweet daughter (Cece Valentina) with his wife and ex-teammate, Helen (Juliet Rylance). But despite his lovely family and a stunning home in the mountains, we’re told Michael has resisted putting down roots because he’s still haunted by his winless résumé. (Sure.) So he promptly jets off to Big Sur, West Hollywood and Hawaii to assemble a squad for the Adventure Racing World Championship and chase that elusive title.

We start with Chik (Ali Suliman), a past-his-prime navigator nursing Chekhov’s bum knee. Then there’s Olivia (Nathalie Emmanuel), an ace climber trying to live up to her dying father’s legacy. (That undercooked subplot leads poor Emmanuel to deliver the most jarring reveal of a cancer diagnosis this side of “The Room.”) And Simu Liu plays Leo, a caricature of a social media influencer who, of course, is more about self-promotion than teamwork. Along the way, we check in on Arthur and his ruff-and-tumble life on the streets of Santo Domingo before he meets Michael’s team.

If you look past the forced banter and exhausted sports clichés, “Arthur the King” does offer curiosity-piquing insight into the high-octane world of adventure racing, with its quirky intricacies and grueling feats of fortitude. The movie also tackles the competing interests of sport and sponsorship, dipping a toe in that weightier discourse without taking the plunge. And Jones delivers plenty of thrills as our heroes cover 435 miles in five-plus days, peaking in a zip-line misadventure packed with white-knuckle antics and tension-cutting quips.

Although Arthur’s introduction to Michael’s team ups the aww factor, it’s tough to square the intensity of the thrill-seeking marathon with the inherent silliness of a dog staring into the camera as whines and whimpers are seemingly added in postproduction. And no amount of puppy love can salvage the woof-worthy dialogue. Even when a rousing finale provides a dash of redemption, it’s not enough to rescue a movie that stumbles out of the blocks and never recovers.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains strong language and scenes of peril. 107 minutes.

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