Mr. Nice

Ifans may have been born with a cig in hand.

By the looks of it, this just might be Rhys Ifans’ year. Following up his stellar supporting turn in Greenberg this summer (a rare notable role in an American production for the actor), he now teams with a talent every bit as diverse as himself, in director Bernie Rose – whose CV extends from 1980s slasher Candyman all the way to 2008’s little-known period piece The Kreutzer Sonata – for the inevitable biopic of legendary drug smuggler Howard Marks.

Beginning with his humble youth in a small Welsh town, Mr. Nice goes on to depict Marks’ decadent teenage years at Oxford University, where he first became acquainted with drugs, and from there traces his slow rise as a drug smuggler under the tutelage of IRA soldier Jim McCann (David Thewlis). Initially running some drugs as a favour for an imprisoned mate, he very quickly becomes enamoured with the culture, and given his genuine belief that cannabis should be legalised, he begins to become regarded as something of a maverick, Robin Hood-like figure, while the police nevertheless try to slap some cuffs on him at every turn. Marks’ lifestyle inevitably leads to excess, however, and endangers his relationship with his girlfriend Judy (Chloe Sevigny), as well as his ever-growing litter of children.

Mr. Nice is a film that essentially preaches to the converted, for given that most of the people seeing it are going to be either interested in Marks, pro-drug legalisation, or more likely, both, Rose tries too hard to espouse his pro-drug stance, and this is coming from someone who strongly agrees with him. Rarely do a few minutes go by without Ifans remarking the absurdity of a plant derivative being illegal, and while true, it lacks conviction and feels too much like a statistic being read from a book rather than an empassioned proclaimation from the heart. One scene closing the film out, in which a judge tells Marks that he taken an oath to uphold the law even if he disagrees with it, is among the year’s most head-shakingly heavy-handed, and very nearly derails the whole thing.

Pesky though its polemical pigeonholing is, Rhys Ifans deserves considerable praise for his turn as Marks. Though not too much of a stretch for the hedonistic Welshman to play a hedonistic Welshman, he injects charm into the fairly routine biopic journey, with a self-assured swagger and a way with cigarette smoke that the camera absolutely loves. David Thewlis is also amusing as the angry, plastic explosive-totting IRA fighter with whom Marks is in cahoots, demonstrating a pitch-perfect Irish accent, and donning some ridiculously shaggy hair. Less consistent is Chloe Sevigny in a rare ropey turn, seeming to have trouble with the English accent, often slipping into an awkward amalgam of American and English which distracts from the dramatic grounding her presence brings to the situation.

It goes without saying that Ifans’ welcoming, banter-esque narration popping in every so often keeps things light and fun, but Rose rattles through the drug pic cliches with a perfunctory, been-there-done-that efficiency that is not the most exciting. Some directorial flair and a few clever plot beats, however, do enough to distinguish it; a dazzling shot of a toilet bowl as an LCD-enhanced Marks urinates into it is startlingly shot, as is a CGI moment from inside Judy’s  vagina as she is penetrated by Marks (bringing the year’s grand total of internal vagina shots to, with Enter the Void, a new record of two). Meanwhile, an episode in which he stages his own abduction in order to not have his bail money forfeitted is genius.

Ultimately, how much one will enjoy the film depends on how virulently you agree with Marks’ stance, and how eager you are to buy into the film’s sermon. However, even drug advocates may find the film’s axe to grind just too intrusive and distracting from the fascinating true story. In very nearly making a martyr figure out of Marks, Rose hugely risks the film’s dramatic integrity, though it does allow Ifans to coax a compelling and flamboyant performance out, even if something far more meaningful and interesting was certainly possible.


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