Netflix presents a young Marco Polo exploring the Far East in this gripping original series.

After Netlix’s success with House of Cards, Marco Polo becomes their most ambitious original series yet. A sophisticated costume drama based on the legendary adventurer’s 13th Century exploits, this first season surpasses all expectations.

The epic historical adventure is reputed to have cost the Weinstein Company over $90 million and every penny of that budget can be seen on screen over the course of ten riveting episodes. It’s a well-done historical drama with surprising depth and lavish production values. Toss in a dash of martial arts action and the usual gratuitous nudity to get Marco Polo, which has become de rigueur for premium cable dramas.

Those expecting a lightweight historical series focused more on visceral action like Spartacus or HBO’s Rome should look elsewhere. In a refreshing change of pace, series creator John Fusco has made Marco Polo a serious drama set in the 13th Century world of Kublai Khan’s imperial court. Given free rein by Netflix, an air of sensuality is added as an undertone to the political machinations that threaten Marco Polo’s life at every turn. It’s a heady blend of intrigue, betrayals and thrilling action at the crossroads of the Mongolian Empire.

The series opens in 1273. Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy) travels the Silk Road with his father, a great trader from Venice. Polo is abandoned by his father in the great Kublai Khan’s court, held as a prisoner of sorts. Khan takes the young Italian on as a pet project, hoping to learn the ways of Christian Europe and gain insight into it. The grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong) has a great dream of uniting all of China under his rule. The only thing standing in his way is the walled city of Xiangyang, led by the devious Chancellor Jia Sidao (Chin Han). Sidao is a cruel, sadistic leader that manipulates everyone around him, including the dying Chinese Emperor. The young Polo will grow up into a warrior in Khan’s court as these two opposing forces go against each other.

Marco is tossed into Khan’s worldly court and tutored in Mongolian ways, including his personal fight instructor, a former Shaolin monk by the name of Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu). Hundred Eyes is surely a fan favorite with his incredible fighting skills and honed wisdom. The blind monk is a great supporting character, a critical element of any long-running drama. Marco also comes across the Blue Princess, a beautiful captured princess forced to live in Khan’s court. Prized for her royal blood, she is fated to marry another royal. She hides a secret that Marco finds captivating. Marco forms a rivalry with Khan’s son, the Prince Jingim.

One may think from its name that the series is about Marco Polo. In fact, the legendary explorer is more of a supporting character in a wider ensemble cast built around Kublai Khan himself. This is a nuanced depiction of the Mongolian ruler, receiving realistic characterization based on historical reality.

Beset by internal problems in his kingdom, the political reality of managing such a vast empire weighs heavily on Khan. Lorenzo Richelmy does give a somewhat vacuous performance as Marco Polo but it’s not a real problem in the long run. Everyone else in the mostly Asian cast is on point with sharp performances.

… others may lose patience with the teases of romance and battles that are mentioned but not shown.

Some may find the drama methodical in developing its intricate web of plot threads. I found the realistic character development a riveting component of Marco Polo’s dramatic intrigue, but others may lose patience with the teases of romance and battles that are mentioned but not shown. The series also indulges a great deal in graphic sexuality, some of it critical to the narrative and at times merely gratuitous. Kublai Khan’s private and luxurious harem is the favored setting for several such moments.

I was expecting another typical, light action series set in a memorable time period, which has become a thing on premium cable these days. This first season of Marco Polo instead delivers a complex, sophisticated drama spiced up with martial arts and compelling characters. Far more historically accurate than its counterparts, Netflix and The Weinstein Company have crafted an elegant new series intended for those intrigued by the Far East in the time of Kublai Khan.

Movie ★★★★★

Marco Polo Blu-ray screen shot 9

This lavish historical drama from Netflix comes in resounding, unblemished video quality. Spread over three BD-50s, this is nearly 600 minutes of razor-sharp, detailed imagery. The production values are outstanding, on par with any premium cable series on television today. Marco Polo is presented in an unusual 2.00:1 aspect ratio at 1080P resolution. A strong AVC video encode averaging 21.99 Mbps offers full transparency without digital artifacts.

Struck from a pristine digital intermediate and shot with exacting cinematography in every scene, this is a technically perfect video transfer of beautiful depth and top-notch fine detail. The raw resolution reveals purely unfiltered detail down to the pores.

Brimming with definition, Marco Polo is close to being reference visual material. Born from a streaming service, this Starz/Anchor Bay Blu-ray is the perfect way to watch the series in its best form. Gone are the compression artifacts and slightly duller presentation seen on Netflix.

Video ★★★★★

The audio presentation is an atmospheric 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack. This is a capable surround output with deep LFE and nice balance. The sound design doesn’t take many risks but creates a convincing sound field for the listener.

A lively amount of rear cues envelopes the action, even when it’s a quiet scene comprised of dialogue. Everything sounds crystal-clear in lush fidelity, tempered by a subdued underscore. A step behind the power and beauty of Marco Polo’s outstanding visuals, the audio is merely a solid performer.

A 5.1 Spanish Dolby Digital dub is included. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles display in a white font inside the widescreen framing.

Audio ★★★★☆

A nice assortment of documentaries and production featurettes comprise the stylish special features for Marco Polo. This is a lot of bonus material, including nearly an hour of deleted footage. All of the bonus features are located on disc number three and include a play-all feature when necessary. A nice slipcover with light embossing is available. Having seen a lot of special features on other sets not worth viewing, these are all fairly interesting.

The Marco Polo Documentary (38:02 in HD) – A rich historical exploration of the real Marco Polo and his place in history. Featuring John Man, an expert on Asian history, and series creator John Fusco, both men detail the history behind the legend. This is a slick, entertaining documentary that avoids relying too heavily on clips from the series. The discussion is fascinating and a solid history lesson.

Deleted Scenes (45:31 in HD) – 17 scenes from various episodes that didn’t make the final cut. Some are mere extensions of existing scenes, while flashback scenes of a young Polo living in Venice were cut out entirely.

Gag Reel (03:23 in HD) – Bloopers from the set as the actors prove they aren’t perfect.

The Martial Arts of Marco Polo (07:33 in HD) – A typical behind-the-scenes look from series creator John Fusco at the fighting depicted in the show.

Fight Scene Rehearsals (12:06 in HD) – Now this is an interesting featurette, a type I’ve never seen before. The stunt people are shown practicing the elaborate fight choreography in front of a green screen as the finished scene from the series is played in a small window for comparison. This was an illuminating video I hope to see on other releases.

The Visual Effects of Marco Polo (02:57 in HD) – The lavish scope of Marco Polo’s set design is revealed in this word-less featurette, revealing the seamlessly integrated digital exteriors for many shots.

Making the Opening Titles (01:40 in HD) – A brief, slick featurette that captures the work creating the moody opening credits.

Concept Art-To-Scene Comparison (03:08 in HD) – Stills from the production art slowly morph into the finalized production scene.

Concept Art Gallery – An option is given to view this as a slideshow.

Costume Gallery – An option is given to view this as a slideshow.

Extras ★★★★★

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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.