Marco Polo, Netflix’s new 10-episode series, is a fun, body-flinging, old-fashioned epic, the sort of story that drops a sensually handsome young man with a beard into a string of adventures in a world heavily spiced with the exotic.
It is not as good as HBO’s Game of Thrones, if that’s what you were wondering. For one thing, there are no large prehistoric eggs that promise to hatch into dragons.
And if there were, the dragons probably would also be old-fashioned: They would be the kind of stop-action clay figures that Ray Harryhausen created for Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans back in the 1960s and ’80s.
But old-fashioned storytelling still has a place in the modern world.
Based on the exploits of the 13th-century Venetian merchant, traveler and tourist, who spent time in the court of Mongol lord Kublai Khan, Marco is less about Polo than about politics, war and espionage in Asia.
Even though Kublai Khan initially looks like a large pile of rugs and furs, something you might casually mistake for a floor display at ABC Carpet and Home, he’s in an expansionist mood, and quite eager to crush the Chinese. Given sufficiently detailed maps, he would probably decide to crush everyone.
In the opening episodes, his ambition generates intriguing crosscurrents of deceit and violence, both in the Mongol and Chinese courts.
We are also privy to a bizarre but certain-to-be-talked-about martial-arts battle with a high-kicking nude woman as protagonist. Marco Polo must have shared campfire anecdotes with Quentin Tarantino at some point.
As Kublai Khan, British actor Benedict Wong gives an impressive performance, one of the best of the year: You absolutely believe his ruthlessness, his power and his calculating thoughtfulness.
As Marco Polo, on the other hand, Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy, who looks like a more lyrical Emile Hirsch, mostly has to be put up with. This probably isn’t his fault so much as the role itself: Even with all his adventures, Marco is essentially a witness in this strange new world. As are we.