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Mr. Nice (A Movie Review)

Updated: Apr 12

MR. NICE (2010)

Starring Rhys Ifans, Chloë Sevigny, David Thewlis, Jack Huston, Christian McKay, Crispin Glover, Elsa Pataky, Omid Djalili, Andrew Tiernan, Nathalie Cox, Kinsey Packard and Ken Russell.

Screenplay by Bernard Rose.

Directed by Bernard Rose.

Distributed by MPI Media Group. 120 minutes. Not Rated.

In certain ways, Mr. Nice is reminiscent of a British Goodfellas or Blow, and yet in other ways it is so much more. Based on the life and times of infamous British drug kingpin Howard Marks and featuring an astonishing performance by Welsh actor/singer Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill, Pirate Radio, the upcoming Spider-Man movie), the movie tells a story that we’ve seen before and yet tells it in a quirky and different way.

Occasionally it seems like a bit of a whitewash – not a huge surprise since it was based on Marks’ autobiography and the guy was also involved behind the scenes and has become a friend of Ifans’ – and yet in other ways it is a fascinating look at the drug trade. And, not completely by coincidence, it is also a fairly strong argument for at the very least the partial legalization of certain types of drugs.

Not that I expect this was the main concern of the filmmakers when creating the film – they were just showing a very cool and personable man who just happened to become one of the world’s largest importer/exporters of marijuana and hashish – but an interesting side effect of this story is that you are often wondering, “Who is really getting so badly harmed here?”

Certainly not Marks, who through drugs was able to find first sex, then love, then financial independence. And yet, of course, he is eventually forced to pay for his cavalier beliefs about personal freedoms.

Not that the guy wasn’t amazingly good at evading this punishment for a long time before finally being brought to justice.

The title, Mr. Nice, is not a nickname for the drug kingpin (though he was, indeed, very nice), it was actually one of his aliases (pronounced “Niece” like the French Riviera city) gained through a chance meeting with a Mr. Donald Nice at a tiny pub.

But how does a nerdy middle-classed Welsh kid turn into one of the world’s largest drug dealers, particularly when he never had any aspirations to anything but being a teacher?

We’ll never know 100% for sure, because the real Marks is a savvy self-mythologizer, but you always wonder how much of it is really true and how much of it is embellished for effect. One thing we do know pretty much for sure, it was mostly economic. Marks was relatively happy as a teacher, but eventually when an opportunity rose by chance through an old Oxford buddy, he realized that he could make a hell of a lot more money running drugs.

Of course, he was a bit of a gentleman drug dealer. If you are looking for Joe Pesci asking threateningly “Do I amuse you?” or Tony Montana screaming “Say hello to my little friend!” you may be in the wrong drug movie.

In fact, the craziest parts of Mr. Nice occur when Marks hooks up with an unstable IRA bigwig (David Thewlis) to help move his product.

More of Mr. Nice is about the highs and the lows – the nights in Majorca, the partying at Studio 54, the beautiful women, and eventually the crash when Marks was arrested in 1988 and spent seven years in US prison.

As stated before, Ifans is a wonderful cipher as the title character, impossibly cool and yet at the same time truly captivating. Thewlis goes a bit over the top occasionally, but it is service of his character. Sadly, the wonderful Chloë Sevigny is rather wasted in the underwritten role of Marks’ supportive second wife.

The movie starts and ends with Marks on stage, doing a speaking engagement, as he has since transformed his notoriety into a second career as a memoirist, talk show gadfly and public speaker. “Are there any plain-clothes policemen in the house?” he asks his appreciative crowd, who hoot and holler in derision at the possibility.

Mr. Nice shows that perhaps this is Howard Marks’ finest achievement. He has changed felony drug running into performance art.

Ken Sharp

Copyright ©2011 All rights reserved. Posted: June 6, 2011.

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