Notorious Welsh drug smuggler Howard Marks secured his legend with the 1996 autobiography Mr. Nice, which compiled anecdotes about brushes with the law, colorful underworld types, and how cooperating with various covert agencies kept an illicit business running. Writer-director Bernard Rose adapts Mr. Nice with Rhys Ifans starring as Marks; the film tells his story from his days as a precocious dope-smoking Oxford student in the ’60s to his almost accidental transition into hashish distribution, which required him to partner up with a paranoid, porn-obsessed IRA operative played by David Thewlis. Rose tries to balance historical accuracy, criminal thrills, black comedy, domestic drama (largely provided by Marks’ interactions with his wife, played by Chloë Sevigny), and the intoxicating haze of the druggie lifestyle.
There are a number of different models for this kind of movie: the kinetic approach of Goodfellas, the detailed dissection of Carlos, the theatrical flourish of Bronson, and so on. Rose tries a little of everything with Mr. Nice, but has difficulty weaving it all into something cohesive and coherent. At times, Mr. Nice plays like a cautionary tale about how a life lived as one long party crashes down into pain, vomit, death, and imprisonment. At other times, it’s more like a time-travelogue, using nifty computer trickery to drop Ifans into the middle of archival footage of Swinging London or Studio 54, set to a soundtrack pumped-up with prog-rock. And throughout, the movie makes a political statement, advocating for drug legalization. The result is a film that’s long and choppy, with little narrative momentum.
And yet at times, Mr. Nice is frustratingly close to brilliant. The movie works best when it sticks to the nitty-gritty of Marks’ operation: how hash is made, how the goods were transported via crates of rock-band equipment, and how our anti-hero avoided incarceration through crazy stunts (such as kidnapping himself, and inventing character witnesses at trial). And though it’s all over the map, tonally and thematically, Mr. Nice succeeds at showing how illegality breeds illegality. What starts as a guy just wanting to get high spirals into international intrigue, complete with gun-runners, double-crosses, and massive wastes of money.