Marco Polo, the big-budget saga with occasional references to the real-life 13th-century Italian merchant who hung out with Kublai Khan, is action-packed, compelling and filled with intrigue and sex ... eventually.
And by "eventually," I mean only after you slog through four slowly paced hourlong episodes filmed in semi-darkness, with a script filled with declamatory dialogue that does little to humanize the story or help untangle the deceptively labyrinthine script. Once you do penetrate the mare's nest of a plot, you realize you've probably seen enough of this kind of thing to anticipate much of the action. The show becomes available for streaming Friday on Netflix.
Six of the first season's 10 episodes were made available to critics and for much of the time, I almost found myself wishing, for a change, that the network had sent fewer.
It's not a total failure, because the challenge of watching it is somewhat counterbalanced by some very good performances and convincing, if underlit, detail of the sets and costumes.
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The series was created by John Fusco (The Forbidden Kingdom) and directed with somnambulant pacing by Dan Minahan, Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg.
It begins, of course, with the arrival of Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy), his father and uncle, in Mongolia, ruled by the great and powerful Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong). The elder Polos soon take off, leaving Marco to fend for himself as a guest of Khan, although, in truth, he is a prisoner.
There is upheaval within the empire and beyond. Not only are the Chinese fighting to keep the Mongols at bay, but there is treachery among the Mongol tribes, including the one headed by Khan's younger brother, who has designs on Khan's throne.
Through all of this, you might find yourself asking, Where's Marco? Well, he's there and sometimes even present in the thick of things, but the character is a somewhat uninteresting cypher. He takes kung fu lessons from the blind Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu), smokes some sort of Mongolian peyote and imagines himself in the center of an orgy, trails the mysterious Blue Princess (Zhu Zhu) trying to figure out where she goes at night, and gradually insinuates himself in Khan's good graces.
But he's not that interesting, which might have something to do with Richelmy, who looks the part of young hero but is rather passionless.
There is a lot of violence in Marco Polo, and a whole lot of nudity, and there are superb performances (Wong; Joan Chen as Empress Chabi; Australian actor Remy Hii as Khan's son and heir, Wu; Chin Han, a picture of unadulterated evil ambition as chancellor Sidao; and Mahesh Jadu as the not entirely trustworthy Ahmad), all of which are undermined by ponderously self-important writing and direction. The fifth and sixth episodes suggest Marco Polo might get over itself in the home stretch, which might be OK since this is a streamed show with multiple episodes available at once. But you still have to give viewers a compelling reason to keep going from the get-go.