Marco Polo’s Chinese exploration lasted for more than two decades.
Perhaps, this is why the producers behind the new Netflix series “Marco Polo” opted to use such glacial pacing when adapting the famous 14th century merchant’s historic tale. For instance, viewers will have to endure 40 minutes of dialogue and strategy before any action takes place on the pilot alone.
Thankfully, the plot accelerates and the number of beautifully choreographed martial arts sequences increase with time. Best of all, each episode ends on a cliffhanger making “Marco Polo” a perfect fit in Netflix’s binge-viewing universe. Borrowing a little hedonism from “Game of Thrones,” the 10-part series also amps up the number of sex scenes with each installment. This includes a gaggle of wanton and topless concubines and a location called the “hall of five desires.”
Sensual and opulent visuals truly help “Marco Polo” stand out and it is clear that no expense was spared when it comes to cinematic and breathtaking shots of the Chinese hillside, lush costuming and sets and convincing wigs. The majority of the cast, which includes Joan Chen (“The Last Emperor”), is also strikingly international and attractive.
But all the eye candy in the world can’t compensate for star Lorenzo Richelmy’s lack of screen presence as the title character. Although the story is supposed to be his, the Italian actor is harder to sympathize with and relate to than a heroine on a Jenji Kohan series.
Blame it on the writing or undeniably powerful performances from Benedict Wong (“Prometheus”) as Kublai Khan and Tom Wu as Marco’s blind combat teacher Hundred Eyes, but Richelmy comes across as an afterthought in most episodes and only serves as an impressively tressed conduit into this ancient and exotic world.
There is a possibility the writers did this on purpose. In reality, Marco Polo was only as fascinating as the stories he told about the larger-than-life Chinese Emperor who was Ghengis Khan’s grandson and whose reign lasted 34 years until 1294. Polo was Kublai Khan’s guest and although he came to respect and require the outsider’s viewpoint, the emperor initially kept Polo around as a source of entertainment in his royal court.
Besides, it’s actually refreshing to watch a piece about a Western foreigner in Eastern land that doesn’t reduce its supporting cast to a menagerie of Asian caricatures a la “The Last Samurai.” Yes, this series is called “Marco Polo” but given how imposing Wong is, a more accurate title would’ve been “Kublai Khan.”
Viewers can also expect noteworthy performances from Olivia Cheng as Mei Lin, an intelligent and deadly concubine-turned-spy, and Remy Hii as Kublai Khan’s power hungry son Prince Jingim.
Speaking of sons, “Marco Polo” does an admirable job dissecting the bonds and conflicts between fathers and sons and even brothers when unpacking the relationships between Marco and his estranged father Niccolo (Pierfrancesco Favino “Rush”) and Niccolo’s brother Maffeo (Corrado Invernizzi).
Niccolo, who was out pursuing his career in the world, didn’t raise Marco and when the two reunite and try to carve out a space in China’s merchant trade, Niccolo bumps heads with Maffeo. Later, Niccolo disappoints Marco and it is up to Marco to decide how and if he will forgive his long lost dad.
Meanwhile, Prince Jingim is constantly at odds with his father Kublai Khan in part because he is threatened by the emperor’s relationships with Marco and Byamba (Uli Latukefu), the emperor’s illegitimate son from a concubine.
Ultimately, once viewers overcome the sluggish pace there’s something for everyone with “Marco Polo.” History lovers will enjoy Googling along with the series as historical names and battles are introduced while martial arts fans will appreciate the intricately choreographed fight scenes. Although the series isn’t as riveting as “Game of Thrones,” strong performances and impeccable visuals make it worthy of a watch on a slow and rainy afternoon.
“Marco Polo” is currently streaming on Netflix.