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Netflix hits a wall with unremarkable Marco Polo


Benedict Wong and Lorenzo Richelmy star in Marco Polo. Netflix photo

Premiering: Friday, Dec. 12th on Netflix, with all 10 episodes available for streaming
Starring: Lorenzo Richelmy, Benedict Wong, Joan Chen, Zhu Zhu, Remy Hii, Pierfrancesco Favino, Olivia Cheng, Uli Latukefu, Chin Han, Amr Waked, Corrado Invernizzi, Darwin Shaw
Produced by: John Fusco, Joachim Ranning, Espen Sandberg, Harvey Weinstein

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Plodding, perplexing, meandering and often shot in the dim or the dark, Netflix’s 10-episode Marco Polo looks destined to be remembered only as the streaming programmer’s first big flop. No wonder the Starz network decided to pass on it.

Your friendly content provider endured all six hours made available for review, hoping that this reported $90 million production somehow would catch fire. Instead the mind wandered far more than Marco Polo does. Wasn’t he supposed to be a travelin’ man? Through the first four laborious hours, his most arduous journey is through 13th century Chinese emperor Kublai Khan’s in-house “Hall of Five Desires,” where the indentured Marco is ordered to look upon but not touch all the writhing, naked women engulfing him.

By the end of Episode 6, Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy) has ventured into the great outdoors to some extent, becoming a detective assigned to investigate who tried to assassinate the corpulent Kublai (Benedict Wong). Any viewers who have stuck it out this far almost assuredly will remain hard-pressed to figure out what the deuce is going on. Marco Polo, filmed in Italy, Kazakhstan and the Pinewood Studios in Malaysia, is harder to decipher than a current-day major league baseball player’s quickly scribbled autograph. War always seems imminent but never consummated during all of the head-numbing machinations among characters whose allegiances and identities remain a constant puzzlement.

Meanwhile, way too much of Marco Polo occurs either in the dead of night or in ill-lit interior venues. It gets depressing in short order, with full-blown daylight almost relegated to cameo appearances. The series rouses itself only at the end of Episode 2, when a fierce, winner-take-all sword fight takes place on the field of battle between Kublai and his duplicitous brother. It’s well-staged and convincingly choreographed. But any momentum is soon dissipated with more murk in subsequent hours.

Netflix triumphed from the very start with the heavily praised House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, which received a total of six Golden Globe nominations Thursday morning. But if Marco Polo is intended to be its answer to HBO’s Game of Thrones, well, that’s not gonna happen. A viewer would be better served trying to track down a copy of NBC’s 10-hour, 1982 Marco Polo miniseries, which likewise starred an unknown (Ken Marshall) but was enlivened by a passing parade of prominent guest stars, including Burt Lancaster, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, John Houseman, Leonard Nimoy and Ian McShane.

Netflix’s Marco Polo instead resorts to a passing parade of nudity, although much of it is -- all together now -- dimly lit. Episode 5 tricks things up a bit with a psychedelic interlude featuring a high-on-something Marco in a red-hued funhouse mirror setting with dozens of naked women. Again, though, it’s not worth the trip.

Richelmy’s Marco, abandoned by his father and uncle to be Kublai’s personal servant, is not exactly riveting in the title role. Wong fares better as the dictatorial but at times compassionate Kublai, who serves as the series’ only real command presence. He does a fine job of lumbering to and fro, but spends a good deal of his waking time sunk into an oversized throne.

It’s hard to envision many if any Netflix subscribers binge-watching this one. They didn’t have electricity back then, and neither does this “spectacle in the truest sense of the word,” in the words of an overblown publicity release. On the contrary, Marco Polo might best be utilized as a sedative or sleeping pill. All those dark to pitch black exteriors and interiors seem guaranteed to prompt an onset of heavy eyelids if not a complete conk-out. And if that doesn’t get you, the ponderous pace almost certainly will.


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