'Marco Polo': TV Review

A middling mess, complete with random accents, slow story and kung fu

Netflix spent a ton of money to make and own this story of the famed Italian traveler

Marco Polo, the massive (a reported $90-million budget), 10-part series from Netflix that attempts to tell the tale of the young traveler from Venice who makes it all the way to China with years of merchant stories and glory to share, is epic only in scope.

Creatively, it’s just a middling mess — something so average that a basic cable channel could have duplicated it without all the foreign travel for about $84 million less.

Shot in Italy, Kazakhstan and Malaysia, Marco Polo looks, on the surface, to be the company's bold attempt to create something as densely ambitious and widely acclaimed as HBO’s Game of Thrones, but ends up being a hodgepodge of locations, accents and obvious storytelling that will probably sell well internationally but do little to make this the Next Big Thing for Netflix.

Created and written by John Fusco (The Forbidden Kingdom, Young Guns, Hidalgo), executive produced by Harvey Weinstein and jointly directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), Marco Polo is a plodding, woeful mess that seems content to mix a dizzying array of accents with a steady stream of Asian cliches and plenty of naked bodies. There’s carnage, yes, but nothing so epic as to be inspiring (at least not in the four hours I watched) — maybe some amazing CGI stuff happens later.

Marco Polo takes place mostly in 13th century China under the influence of Mongol leader Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong), who comes into possession of handsome young Marco (Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy) when the latter’s father and uncle cough him up to appease Khan and continue to trade on the Silk Road.

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Khan enlists Marco to follow his minions around and report on whether or not they are truly loyal. Lie and you die — it’s one of the many easy lessons Marco learns in a series replete with intellectually facile aphorisms.

There are indeed an incalculable number of cliches in Marco Polo, but it’s hard to ignore the blind kung-fu master (Tom Wu) teaching Marco about the ways of the East. There are even grasshoppers in Marco Polo. Grasshoppers are metaphorically important at one point, whether you’ve seen the Kung Fu series or not. So you should pay attention.

When the writing lets Marco Polo down — which is pretty much at every turn — there’s a bevy of naked women on hand (of course, the men stay mostly clothed). One character, Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng), is naked so often it’s jarring to see her clothed. She even gets to do some murderous kung fu and master very sharp blades while fully naked, which is impressive.

Wong ends up being a very interesting Khan, when you get past his British accent. His wife is played by Joan Chen, who looks as ravishing as always but isn’t given much to do except dole out advice. There’s a lot of advice to dish out in Marco Polo, because what would this series be without ancient Chinese platitudes?

About that writing. What makes Game of Thrones and other epic stories transcend middling filler is great writing to start with, then exceptional acting to bring it home. But the actors in Marco Polo suffer from the dialogue they're forced to utter. Like the wife who pleads, “Give me the nectar,” to her husband as they have sex. Or Chen’s lines about Khan’s brother needing to be “trampled by a thousand horses and left on the steps to rot.” He is, as she said earlier, a dog who would “eat his own afterbirth.”

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In the local brothel — or some Hall of Five Desires nonsense — the concubines are told to “perform as though your life depends upon it; it also likely does.”

Marco himself is scolded once thusly: “Steer your eyes from her visage. She is beyond your reach.”

A favorite, however, comes when Marco is wrestling a beautiful woman (just go with it), who really kicks ass. According to local Chinese dictates, he who can best her in wrestling can have her, sexually. Seriously, her dad even said so. Says she: “And the women you’ve conquered — do they melt in your hands?” To which Marco says, without laughing: “Like snow in the desert.”

OK, then.

Of the four hours spent watching Marco Polo, there wasn’t much action. Lots of talking. Lots of nudity. And Marco getting beaten around pretty solidly by the blind kung fu master (who can, of course, toss fruit in the air and chop it into quarters with his blade). But the kind of action one might expect in an epic, worldly costume drama? 

Let’s just say that Marco Polo is no Rome. On the other hand, it’s a lot less annoying than the eponymous game kids play in the pool. But that’s probably not what Netflix was buying with all its money.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

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