Basically Kublai Khan: The Show as told by the only non-Asian in the cast, Netflix’s dreadful Marco Polo is another in a long line of shows/films about an ‘ethnically different’ culture seen through the safe veneer of whiteness. We’ve come full circle then in that Marco Polo and his “book” Marvels of the World may well be the originator of the white man in a foreign land that became the template for every mid 90s Ed Zwick film before now becoming its very own prestige Netflix show. The snake has eaten its own tail indeed. It’s difficult though to get all gung-ho and worked up about a show this down right pedestrian. There’s a bit towards the end of the first episode that intercuts between Marco resisting the lure of a bevy of naked prostitutes and Marco’s Kung-Fu trainer battling the untoward advances of a rattlesnake, yes an actual rattlesnake — proof this show isn’t insidious, it’s just stupid.
My Marco Polo review after the jump.
There’s an extra dollop of father-son melodrama – the usual: son attempts to live up to his father’s image only to fall far short in his esteem. Tears are held back while winsome looks of approval go unanswered. You know – manly stuff like that. So stuck up Marco joins his adventurer daddy on a boat to gain his respect; but gosh-golly daddy-o isn’t having it and trades Marco into enslavement to burgeoning ruler Kublai Khan for access to some trade routes. Dads – am I right? But ol’ emperor-in-training Kublai deep down only wants to rule the world due to some patriarchal obligation to grandpa Genghis. They’re the same – see? Marco and Kublai in an effort to appease their blood find themselves lacking. Deep down you just gotta be yourself, man.
If Marco Polo were just that – a dysfunctional father-son tale about boys screaming out against the will of their pops – it would be a tad obvious but at least it would be something. Instead Marco Polo feels like a show ‘test-audienced’ to appeal to every single demographic possible. Its got the political intrigue & backstabbing for the so-called serious minded, martial arts & slow-mo fighting for the action-fanatics and copious amounts of nudity (sometimes even during the aforementioned slow-mo fighting) for the more prurient. But by mixing all these ingredients together – adult drama, action extravaganza, soft-core titillation, father-son melodrama — Marco Polo fails to pay proper lip service to any. It’s a total jumbled mess, switching tones haphazardly – one moment Kublai Khan is waxing poetic with his younger unruly brother and the next second a concubine is stripping all her clothes off and fighting a group of soldiers a la Eastern Promises. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it other than some vague notion that this is what the audience must want. It’s the equivalent of throwing darts at a board but deciding not just to go for the bulls-eye but instead every single nook and cranny of the board just to cover your bases.
It doesn’t help that lead Lorenzo Rilchelmy is a complete blank as the titular explorer. Marco’s a spectator for much of the episodes, reacting as events transpire around him. In fact there are whole scenes where Marco just stands around and watches as one character murders another or a horse tramples over his friend or two women pleasure a man or his dad sells him into slavery… He’s remarkably passive – and the role needs an actor capable of imbuing a certain amount of gravitas to the slight material given. Rilchemy just doesn’t have the presence – at least in these early episodes – to make the impression needed to become a compelling audience surrogate.
To make matters worse, Benedict Wong (Prometheus) is excellent as Kublai Khan – to the extent where you begin to wonder why the show didn’t just jettison this Polo character and be The Rise and Fall of Kublai Khan. The only moments where the show musters any of the dramatic weight it aspires to be are when Wong snarls, growls and barks at whomever he’s sharing a scene with. There’s, of course, the prerequisite soft edge to the character as underneath all of Khan’s bluster, he’s really only a neglected child trying to live up to his family name. To Wong’s credit, he ably finds new nuances to the stern-leader-with-a-secretly-warm-heart archetype, his scenes with Joan Chen as his wife/confidant in particular get at the wounded pride that motivates each of his actions.
It all looks quite nice though. Much has been made of Marco Polo’s reported 90 million price tag (the second largest for a TV show after Game of Thrones) – and to directors Joachim Ronning & Espen Sandberg’s credit — it’s all up there on the screen. There’s a real lushness to the color palette, all saturated greens, yellows and reds that lends itself to creating an eerie and otherworldly sense of place. But it’s all in the service of so very little. For all the money spent, there’s just not much there content wise. You’ve seen this show, these scenes, these characters a million times over. Is a nice looking set really enough to justify a show’s existence?
Marco Polo premieres/streams this Friday on Netflix.
*The review is based on the first two episodes of the series.