Director: Bernard Rose
Writer: Bernard Rose
Cinematographer: Bernard Rose
Stars: Rhys Ifans, Chloe Sevigny, Crispin Glover, David Thewlis
Studio/Running Time: MPI Media Group, 121 min.
A biopic with nothing but highs
There are history movies and then there are “history” movies. But while Mr. Nice stands firmly in the later camp, it also stand out through sheer exuberance. In a movie like Walk the Line all those good times have to come at a price, and the dreary sentimentality of rehab and then a comeback makes for rote and predictable thrills. Mr. Nice has none of that; neither does it turn into a moralizing fable like so many drug-themed pictures. No, what Mr. Nice offers is a stylish and fascinating biography that, while perhaps playing loose with the facts, knows that it’s far more entertaining to watch the highs than the lows. It’s left out the lows altogether.
The film stars Rhys Ifans as Howard Marks, a notorious international hash smuggler. He quickly shifts from straight-edge Oxford student to drug dealer partly for the thrills and partly because he sees no reason not to. Soon he begins smuggling it in through Ireland with a member of the IRA and also becomes (very) loosely affiliated with MI6. After successfully turning into one of the largest dealers in the UK, he sets his eyes on America and begins dealing hash there, too. Through all of this he’s also caught numerous times but manages to escape either arrest or punishment by simply being more clever and charming than his adversaries.
If Mr. Nice doesn’t have much of a central philosophy or approach to its subject, it’s because neither does Howard Marks. Ifans plays him as a man drifting through life and perfectly content to get by on his natural gifts. Likewise, writer-director Bernard Rose makes the movie affably frenetic and fast-paced, happy to depict events without driving at deeper motivations or implications because as far as he’s concerned there weren’t any. Marks became Britain’s most wanted criminal not because of any sort of personal vendetta like Jacques Mesrine or political philosophy like Carlos the Jackal—he’s just having a laugh. Rose and Ifans make it impossible not to join him in this and enjoy the ride.
The lack of depth from Mr. Nice may be jarring in a sense, given expectations for this genre. There’s a sense that he’s never given his Wellesian comeuppance, but this is actually much of what makes the film daring. Rose and Ifans resolutely stand by Marks’s choices in simply wanting to enjoy his life and rather than trying to identify a problem and using Marks as an exemplar of it, their point is simply that Marks is a fascinating—if not completely upstanding—individual and his life is an incredible story. Turns out they were right, and to their credit they didn’t try to turn the film into anything more or less than that.