In The Godfather, Don Corleone made a living through gambling and prostitution (among other illegal activities) but took an adamant stance against narcotics: “drugs, that’s a dirty business.” While this was a reasoned decision, it provided the character with the kind of interesting moral compass that endeared him to us; these are bad guys, sure, but they draw the line somewhere.
Bernard Rose’s Mr. Nice celebrates Howard Marks, the Welsh cannabis smuggler who was said to have controlled, at one point, 10% of the world’s hashish trade (“I’ve imported enough marijuana to get every inhabitant of the British Isles stoned,” he claims at one point).
Marks evaded authorities for years before being extradited to the US and serving time for trafficking. Today, he lives as a free man in the UK, campaigning for the legalization of marijuana.
Mr. Nice is a well-intentioned and nicely produced film that I have just one issue with (and I had the same issue with Ted Demme’s Blow, a similar film): I’m not so sure we should be celebrating Mr. Marks.
And if we are, he isn’t quite interesting enough, at least as evidenced by the film. Interesting things happen to him and because of him, sure, but he lacks the internal complexities that would make him a compelling character. Rhys Ifans stars as Marks, at the outset of the film an Oxford University student (seeing 40-year-old Ifans as a college student here is rather amusing).
He’s a good student who is introduced into the world of drugs but maintains high grades and gives up the narcotics when he lands a teaching job. But when busted friend Graham (Jack Huston) asks him to drive a car loaded with hashish into the UK – and his wife announces that she’s fallen in love with another man – Howard is quick to switch professions.
Mr. Nice is a glossy, encompassing look at Marks’ life in drugs, from a connection in Afghanistan that brings him high-grade hashish, to the IRA man (David Thewlis) who helps him smuggle it into the UK, the accountant (Jamie Harris) who helps him launder the money, the MI6 friend who recruits him, and a connection in the US (Crispin Glover). Also in the mix: his second wife Judy (Chloë Sevigny) and three kids.
In detailing all of the intricacies of drug-smuggling exploits, however, writer-director Rose (and possibly Marks himself, whose autobiography the film is based on) fails to bring the same level of detail to the lead character: Marks here is a surprisingly bland hero.
He doesn’t use violence, he never dabbles in anything more serious than hashish, he won’t rat out anyone – but the motives behind all these decisions are absent; he’s an arbitrary opportunist who takes what he can get. Climatic scenes ask us to care about Marks and his family, but he was smart enough to see this coming.
Director Rose has been an unsung auteur, tackling a diverse range of subjects: Candyman (one of the creepiest – and best – horror films of the past 30 years) won him acclaim, as did his Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved; his recent Tolstoy adaptations have received less attention (ivansetc, however, is highly recommended).
Rose wrote, directed, shot, and edited Mr. Nice, and his inventiveness as a filmmaker keeps our attention even when his script doesn’t; the use of period stock footage is particularly imaginative. He also provides the film with an aloof – but agreeable – comedy-drama tone, a notable departure from his previous films.
Original music is by Philip Glass, who also provided the unforgettable score to Rose’s Candyman. Mixed in amongst period hits, the Glass pieces intermittently grab our attention but ultimately feel underused (even a by-the-numbers thriller like Taking Lives can be overtaken and elevated by a persuasive Glass score).