Mr. Nice (Independent, NR)

Covering Howard Marks’ life in pretty hefty detail from his teen years onward, Mr. Nice has several decades’ worth of ground to cover and does so rather in rather quick fashion, though not so quickly as to gloss over the details.



Based on his autobiography of the same name, Mr. Nice tells the story of Howard Marks, an overachieving teenager from Wales who transformed himself into one of the world’s most infamous dope dealers. As played with supersuave cool by Rhys Ifans, we meet Marks in the 1960s as he finds out he’s scored entry into Oxford. On his first day, a pretty young thing named Ilze (Elsa Pataky) knocks on his window: turns out, he’s the gatekeeper for ladies to enter the dorm and gain access to the drug den down the hall. He follows her, gets high for the first time, and discovers he really, really likes it. It’s a short trip from drug user to drug dealer, a new trade Marks finds himself especially adept at. He’s busted and quits for a time, graduating and getting a low paying job as a teacher, but the allure of drugs and the money that comes with them soon drags him back in. His career takes a big turn for the better when he gets hooked up with Jim McCann (David Thewlis), an irascible IRA revolutionary who controls an Irish airport. With McCann’s help, Marks can now smuggle high quality hashish from Pakistan into Ireland, and from Ireland into London. That’s when an old college friend now working for the British government named Hamilton (Christian McKay) approaches Marks with the most unlikely of propositions: if he agrees to help feed them information on McCann’s activities, he’ll be an unofficial MI6 operative, with all the wink-wink-nudge-nudge protections that implies. Marks is a dope dealer with the government on his side.
Ah, but that, naturally, is when Marks gets greedy and tries to break into the American market with the help of a blissed-out Californian named Ernie Combs (Crispin Glover). His very first foray into America gets him busted, and while Marks manages to eke his way to freedom thanks to his MI6 contacts, he’s back in business and basically on the lam. Stealing the identity of a sap he and his wife Judy (Chloë Sevigny) meet in a pub, the Robin Hood of drug dealers continues his business under a new name: Mr. Nice.
Covering Marks’ life in pretty hefty detail from his teen years onward, Mr. Nice has several decades’ worth of ground to cover and does so rather in rather quick fashion, though not so quickly as to gloss over the details. And it’s the scenes that revel in the details that actually tend to be the best ones, such as when we get an inside view of Marks’ various tricks to get his merchandise past customs agents. Most often, though, the slow-downs are simply to revel in the joy of smoking: never has the act of smoking been filmed so lovingly, with Rose’s camera slowly lingering over Marks as he looks like he’s taking a drag of life itself.
Rose’s direction does a fine job of placing the film in time, using visual queues to firmly establish as the time period glides from the ‘60s to the ‘70s to the ‘80s with subtle shifts in fashion and backgrounds, plus carefully placed audio-visual queues, such as a ‘70s montage set to John Lennon’s epic “God” or Howard and Judy having a joyous bit of sex during Nancy Reagan’s infamous “Just Say No” speech. On a side note, getting to watch the film on a screener gave me the opportunity to watch the film twice, and I enjoyed it even more the second time, as I was able to lose myself in all of these little details. This is one sturdily made film.
The film leans heavily on Marks’ story, meaning even normally strong actors like Sevigny and Glover are resigned to fade into the background. This would be a problem if Ifans wasn’t such a powerhouse in the role of Marks, but he’s so commanding of attention that the lack of other strong characters doesn’t feel like a weakness. The only actor that stands toe-to-toe with Ifans is Thewlis as McCann, whose orneriness verging on the edge of insanity provides most of the film’s funniest moments.
The missteps are few, and mostly caused by tonal inconsistencies, such as a pair of brutally violent scenes that jump out of nowhere to harsh the buzz, or the framing sequence set to look like one of Marks’ current day spoken word gigs that seems like it teleported in from another from another movie. On the whole, Marks’ story is a compelling one, though at times a bit unbelievable: are we supposed to buy that his first wife Ilze conveniently, emotionlessly tells him that she’s leaving him for another man right after he meets Judy and right before he sleeps with her for the first time? Then again, I guess it’s hardly surprising that a man known for being a professional liar would prove an unreliable narrator. | Jason Green
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