Cinema Review: Mr. Nice
Amongst the hash-head community in Britain, Howard Marks is a bone fide legend. Belonging to the same generation as the Rolling Stones, with similar looks, hairstyle and attitude, he has become a paterfamilias of the pro-cannabis movement, a figure whose former criminal activities have given him a Robin Hood or Butch Cassidy status—a freedom fighter with a smile on his face, as his famous moniker suggests.
As ‘careers’ in cannabis go, his has no equal, starting with his introduction to the drug as an Oxford undergraduate in the 1960s, moving quickly through the ranks of smuggling to become a major player through the ’70s and ’80s, whilst having spectacular run-ins with international policing and attaining media celebrity in the process. Later, he became a best-selling author with his autobiography, Mr. Nice, and other books, and also carved out a niche as a stage performer, a DJ and raconteur, pontificating at length about his favourite subject. He could have been a Richard Branson-type alternative entrepreneur, apart from the mere detail that his trade was highly illegal.
Mr. Nice the movie encapsulates this picaresque life, using Marks’ own choice of actor to play him, Rhys Ifans, a fellow Welshman and like-minded friend. The evident chemistry between the two works well, with Ifans in dark wigs slipping easily into another louche Welsh charmer role, assuredly inhabiting the character of ‘Howard Marks’ and making him very sympathetic.
The movie starts with Howard’s teenage life in Glamorganshire, which, shot in black and white, 4 : 3 ratio, has a kitchen sink-drama quality, made stranger, almost Dennis Potteresque, by using Ifans himself rather than a youthful look-alike. Gaining a scholarship to Oxford, Howard mixes with the toffs and posh totty, and like Dorothy entering the land of Oz, his world blossoms into colour and widescreen after having his first toke of dope, soon followed by the inevitable sugar cube of LSD.
This method of referencing the visual formats of the era is further reinforced by blending in actual period background footage, with Howard digitally transposed into the scenes and rendered suitably grainy to match them—a nice touch, giving a contemporary technical leg-up to nostalgia. These early scenes of university life, partying and self-discovery are given a similar treatment to that of druggy films of the era, such as The Trip, Easy Rider and Performance, compounding the period associations yet more.
After university, Howard is introduced to dope smuggling when a friend is busted in Germany and Howard is tasked with bringing an alternative consignment back home. He gets to meet the contacts who will become structural to his weird life of drug running and espionage, such as big-time Pakistani exporter Malik (Omid Djalili) and IRA man Jim McCann (David Thewlis), who arranges dispersal of the consignments through his network at Shannon Airport. Also re-appearing on the scene is former Oxford chum Hamilton McMillan (Christian McKay), now working for MI6 and keen to recruit Howard because of his unique access to IRA information. Howard also meets future wife Judy (Chloë Sevigny) and in between his various escapades they enjoy the high life and the finer things that piles of laundered money can buy.
Inevitably, with cramming three decades of a life into a two-hour film, there is much telescoping, compression and omission, with long stretches of time glossed over in broad strokes without the characters looking appreciably older. The intricacies of the smuggling operations, some of which, according to the book, involved military scale and organisation, are also simplified, the better to concentrate on the human angle of the development of Howard Marks’ weird public persona, exemplified by the alias Mr. Nice. His story, together with its conflation of narcotics and espionage—MI6, the IRA and the American DEA all figuring in the equation—eventually caught the attention of the media and Howard’s celebrity was born. As Howard and Judy’s children start to grow, the stresses and dissonance of smuggling on family life are probed, and as the law gets more and more onto Howard’s tail, the whole lifestyle seems less glamorous and more perilous.
Having a personable drug smuggler as a lead character, Mr. Nice skews away somewhat from the regular crime drama and tends more towards the comedy feel of an Ealing caper, for which Rhys Ifans’ light touch is ideally suited. One would think then that Omid Djalili would further this tendency, but, wearing an obvious wig and playing the part of Malik straight, he seems oddly cast. Much better and more rounded is David Thewlis’ Jim McCann, a rumbustious scene-stealing performance, with many comic moments and very close to the McCann of the book.
The earlier scenes, back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, have the quaintness of an episode of Heartbeat, what with the old motors, the hassle of having to rely on cranky coin-operated phone boxes for important calls in rural settings and the comically surreal exchanges, using code words to confound eavesdroppers. One could argue that this is a rose-tinted view of the world of drug trafficking, an anodyne version suited to lighter entertainment. But the film also functions as a cautionary tale for those who would dabble in such a life, and by showing the thrills and excitement—the ‘asexual orgasm’ of fooling the customs men and the joys of narrow escapes from the arms of the law—the downfall, when it eventually comes, is all the more telling.
Bernard Rose, who has a very hands-on role as screenwriter, director, DOP and co-editor, has crafted a worthy and atypical British movie that stands apart and is not easy to pigeonhole. Part psychedelic nostalgia trip, part comedy of errors and part rise-fall-and-redemption story, it works well and is a fine vehicle for the ever-expanding talents of Rhys Ifans.