TV Review: ‘Marco Polo’

Marco Polo TV Review Netflix

Gullible media types have billed “Marco Polo” as Netflix’s possible answer to “Game of Thrones.” The more logical comparisons would be a thematic one to “Shogun” — that splendid miniseries of yesteryear, about a European traveler navigating strange-to-his-eyes Asian culture — and a qualitative tilt toward History’s “Vikings,” albeit with far more nudity, as well as clunkier dialogue. Handsome to look at, reasonably entertaining and questionable as history, the series luxuriates in a period setting that provides license for all the usual barbaric diversions. Still, having viewed the first six of 10 episodes, if somebody yells, “Marco!” nobody should feel compelled to answer right away.

Instead of a slavish devotion to the adventures of Marco Polo (newcomer Lorenzo Richelmy) — the young Italian who spent time in the court of Mongol leader Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong) in the 13th century, and gave rise to a game played by children in swimming pools — series creator John Fusco (“The Forbidden Kingdom”) has used the exotic backdrop as an invitation to dabble in B-movie cliches. These range from the blind master Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) who dispenses “Kung Fu”-like wisdom while teaching Marco the martial arts, to the beautiful and forbidden princess (Zhu Zhu) who immediately catches the visitor’s eye.

Brought to China by his father, whom he barely knows, Marco is essentially left with the Mongol leader as an offering to secure Dad’s access to lucrative trading routes. Yet his insights spur Khan’s curiosity, and he is quickly drawn into the machinations and power struggles surrounding the court, teeming with threats in the form of spies and even family, as well as a concubine (Olivia Cheng) who’s no slouch in the carnage department, either.

Featuring a largely unfamiliar cast (Joan Chen is among the more recognizable players as Khan’s protective wife), Wong certainly strikes an arresting figure as the ruthless if somewhat philosophical emperor, and Chin Han is intriguing as Jia Sidao, a calculating, sadistic chancellor in the Song court.

By contrast, Richelmy’s Marco, while conventionally handsome, is thinly drawn and a bit charisma-challenged, providing not much more than a surrogate for Western eyes. Richard Chamberlain circa 1980, where are you when we need you?

Similarly, the dialogue proves intermittently stilted, always a challenge in this sort of period piece, where people say things like, “Of the yin and yang, you have an abundance of yang,” as the blind Hundred Eyes tells Marco.

So while “Marco Polo” possesses scope, scale and an inordinate amount of exposed skin, the series exhibits only a sporadic pulse. That leaves a property that can be fun taken strictly on its own terms, but deficient in the binge-worthy qualities upon which Netflix’s distribution system has relied.

“Perform as if your life depended on it,” an official tells potential concubines, auditioning for spots in the great Khan’s service. “It most likely does.”

Thanks to Netflix’s mysterious metrics and the project’s potential international appeal, the stakes for this Electus and Weinstein Co. collaboration probably aren’t that high. And that’s the good news for a series that looks the part in terms of vying for a spot among elite period dramas, but winds up feeling like a pretender to the throne.

TV Review: 'Marco Polo'

(Series; Netflix, Dec. 12)

Production

Filmed in Malaysia, Venice and Kazakhstan by Electus and presented by the Weinstein Co. TV.

Crew

Executive producers, John Fusco, Dan Minahan, Joachim Ronning, Espen Sandberg, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Ben Silverman, Chris Grant, Dave Erickson, Peter Friedlander; co-executive producer, Patrick Macmanus; producers, Richard Sharkey, Brett Conrad, Collin Creighton; director, Ronning, Sandberg; writer, Fusco; camera, Romain LaCourbas; production designer, Lilly Kilvert; editor, Malcolm Jamieson; music, Peter Nashel, Eric V. Hachikian; casting, Nina Gold, Marc Hirschfeld, Christine King, Poping Auyeung. 60 MIN.

Cast

Lorenzo Richelmy, Benedict Wong, Zhu Zhu, Remy Hii, Joan Chen, Chin Han, Olivia Cheng, Uli Latukefu, Claudia Kim, Tom Wu, Mahesh Jadu, Rick Yune

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  1. Robert Cheeseman says:

    Marco Polo was a great program- couldn’t get enough of the series 1 and 2- hope they do a 3rd- What set preparation- I don’t know why they don’t get Emmys for the work- The series was a 10 out of 10 compared to all the other junk out there. LOVED it!

  2. chris says:

    Is your poor review receiving the attention you hoped to get? I doubt it as most people these days can spot a fake film critic. 1/5 for effort. Try again.

  3. Ralph says:

    This is an awesome show. I’m hooked. I hope there’s a second season.

  4. Alex Chua says:

    I agree with the reviewerSong Jiang, the author is ignorrant of eastern culture that he dismisses deep rooted philosophy of yin/yang and true essence of Kung fu as b-movie clichés. Perhaps the author is more familiar with cliches like ‘I am the blood of the dragon’ or ‘winter is coming’. That is his depth of ignorance or racism, whichever it may be. I commend the producers for having the courage to have the actors play the proud heritage of the Mongol and Chinese people with dignity and respect they deserve.

  5. Song Jiang says:

    I just finished watching the entire first season, and my opinion is that the series is riveting. I think the nudity and sex scenes could have been toned down, but everything else was outstanding. The characters are richly drawn. The period aspects are historically accurate. The scenery is stunning. The interior scenes were remarkable in their detail.

    The Variety reviewer doesn’t appreciate the stilted dialogue. I found the dialogue to be beautiful and powerful. It has a literary quality that is rare in contemporary television and movies. Similarly, the motivations of the characters are complex and not easy to encapsulate. The acting is first-rate all around. I thought that Richelmy brings just the right amount of confidence and naivete to the role. Marco is confused and forlorn but also ambitious and a lover of adventure. To be able to combine all that into a believable performance deserves accolades.

    I sense a bit of racism (or outright ignorance–which is often tantamount to the same thing) in the review. Why are mentions of Chinese philosophy or traditional characters (the blind kung-fu master) necessarily B-movie cliches? There is a rich history of such things in the Chinese tradition, and here they are depicted with an admirable level of care and subtlety–if you give them a chance.

    You also have to give the actors a chance. One commenter is correct that the different English accents the actors bring can be jarring, but when you have an international ensemble cast depicting an international ensemble from history, there have to be some trade offs. I would much rather have fantastic Asian actors playing the roles with slightly problematic accents than perfectly accented non-Asian actors or lesser quality Asians actors. I reveled in the powerful work the actors did.

    Kudos to Netflix and the producers for going international with gusto!

  6. AtomicB says:

    The customary slagging of Christianity in the first few minutes… of course.

  7. Janetoo says:

    I loved this show. Was riveted. Your review is wrong.

    • Tony Chan says:

      This had so much promise, but the usual clichés showed up in the series as well as maddening incongruencies. For example, the Khan brothers having different accents! The obligatory kung fu fight scenes with not only blind men besting foes but also fragile women…come on. The lighting is terrible and much of the dialogue is mumbled. They may need an actual Asian advisor on Asian themed shows.

      • cblackwell says:

        Yes I specifically couldn’t take the cliche of using human actors. It is so over-done these days. And the cliche of language and all of those other things that are historically accurate used to give a fair representation of the area and time period. All sarcasm aside, you do realize that some “cliches” are necessary because of their accuracy, correct? The Khan’s brother’s having different accents. Yes, that’s what happens when you move into another society. I have first hand experience of this. If you didn’t know, the rare use of kung-fu that you see is there to represent the fact that, well, it is a real martial art that was really used during that time. You haven’t actually given a review. I will give a review of YOU with the same parameters that you have used: Both Tony and Chan are cliche names and so your name is bad and you are a bad person. Your paragraph uses many English words. I see this ALL the time, so unoriginal. 1/10. Try again.

  8. Tom Boers says:

    Nowhere as complex and beholding as its apparent rival (GoT). No English cast or writers: stilted action and flawed iteractions. Not worth the moeny, ley alone the attention …. Go watch Shogun in stead, 35 years old with the same amount of tempo but quite (very much less skin though ….) but some more action.

  9. If your review hold true, it is a pity, as I was Poo Poo by said production company when I offered my services ! Francis ODonnell , producer , writer and director of PBS,emmy nominated Doc. ” In the footsteps of Marco Polo ” ! view at http://www.wliw.org/marcopolo

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