The story of Howard Marks (Rhys Ifans), the Oxford graduate who discovered an uncanny talent for cannabis-trafficking, and who, at his peak during the 70s, claims to have been embroiled in dealings with the IRA and MI6, while reportedly in control of ten
If there were an annual prize for best biopic casting, then this year’s should surely be snaffled by Rhys Ifans as dope smuggler extraordinaire Howard Marks. It’s not just the loose physical resemblance and shared provenance; Ifans’ own frothy blend of the shambolic and charismatic prove a perfect match for Marks’ own, his clear, intelligent eyes deceptively framed by shaggy features. It should come as no surprise that Ifans is a long-time fan of Marks, nor that the two are now firm friends. And, with Bernard Rose’s movie respectfully close to Marks’ autobiography of the same title, a small phenomenon upon its publication 14 years ago, it should also come as no surprise that Mr. Nice is a considerably forgiving and unquestioning portrayal of the former cannabis smuggler.
Which isn’t to suggest the man deserves a character assassination. Indeed, both the movie and he himself are quite right to question whether his crimes — which he eventually served time for — actually really hurt anybody (beyond encouraging them to mix tobacco with his products), and those expecting some kind of hippie polemic should note that the film stops short of becoming a platform for Marks’ understandable belief that cannabis should be legalised. But the fact is, you are watching Marks’ story as told by Marks — very deliberately so, given the framing device is Marks’ own post-publication one-man show; “Are there any undercover policemen in the audience?” goes the opening schtick.
As with any rise/fall/recovery story, the biopic beats are deeply familiar, right down to the obligatory story thread which involves Marks’ wife Judy (an oddly misplaced Chlöe Sevigny, in a perpetual battle with her English accent) at first enjoying the fruits of her husband’s shady labours, then suffering as he gets in too deep.
Likely sensing this, director Rose employs numerous stylistic tricks. The film opens in black and white, revealing naive-but-sharp schoolboy Marks still entangled in his poor, Glamorgan roots. Then, whaddaya know,
as he tries his first blot of LSD at Oxford, the world unfurls into full colour. Obvious, yes, but it works well — as does Rose’s occasional mixing-in of stock footage. Even so, once you’ve dragged it down to the roach, Mr. Nice does remain a conventional crime biopic — although thankfully, we are at least spared an OD sequence.
A solid, often entertaining life-of-crimer which benefits from some stylistic touches and a faithful, convincing central performance.