Rhys Ifans, Chloe Sevigny
it's David Thewlis who steals the film as IRA man Jim McCann
Dennis Howard Marks was an A student with a bright future after winning a scholarship to Oxford. That is until his first year when he discovered drugs and was catapulted towards his destiny of becoming the biggest dealer in the UK and later the world. With a little espionage along the way...
Mr Nice seems to be a book almost everyone has read, recalling the lurid and unlikely adventures of Howard Marks as he operated around the world under numerous alias' including that of the title. It's candid and often hilarious but also supremely biased, elements which it shares with the big screen adaptation.
Ifans plays Marks at all ages, in an outsized school uniform for his early years and adopting a charming arrogant impatience as he heads off to Oxford while a teenager. It's a brave decision but it passes without too much attention from the filmmakers, as does the films transition from a 4:3 aspect ratio to widescreen and the later switch to colour when Mark's first discovers drugs. It sounds overly complicated but it's all accomplished subtly without becoming a gimmick.
In the space of a single cut, Marks is a fully-fledged drug dealer, only briefly waylaid by a tiresome career as a teacher (and an inconvenient marriage) before he's rambunctiously flitting around the world, pulling off audacious acts of smuggling seemingly more by luck than skill. As with the book, these accounts are almost unbelievable, with the incompetence at every level genuinely hilarious. Add in meddling with MI6 and David Thewlis' IRA man and you have an international comedy of errors with the ultimate likeable everyman at the centre.
It's bizarre then that the film takes a massive turn towards the depressing once Marks is, inevitably, incarcerated. Unlike the tonally similar I Love You Phillip Morris (which earned laughs from the most dire circumstances), Mr Nice slows to a crawl once legal proceedings start, forcing the audience into an endurance test of whinging. We like Marks when he's coasting through customs and quipping with officials but the second he runs into any adversity he becomes nigh on insufferable. Perhaps it's to be expected from a movie which so closely follows an autobiography but this lack of objectivity threatened to draw me out of the movie. However compelling the argument for legalising soft drugs, Marks knowingly broke the law hundreds if not thousands of times while running an international trafficking operation. He may have been a genial and charismatic individual but he dealt openly with terrorists and lied in an attempt to stay out of jail and the films hero worship of him is more than a little blinkered.
These objections aside, Mr. Nice is an enjoyable biopic, with Marks' adventures providing some great comedy moments. Ifans is fantastic in the lead role and Sevigny looks great, even if she falters at an English accent. But it's David Thewlis who steals the film as IRA man Jim McCann - the accent isn't perfect but his swagger and constantly shifting priorities are an idiosyncratic joy. And Crispin Glover pops in for a bizarre but fun cameo.In Short:
An unbelievable true story with some great laughs and strong performances that can't help whipping out the soap box from time to time.