This review was originally published June 2, 2011. It is being reposted for the DVD release.
Drug dealer biopics aren’t exactly the most traditionally happy-go-lucky genre. The classics are the extremely violent tales of hubris and disaster, from Tony Montana to Henry Hill. Even films like “Blow,” working with a more laid-back sense of charisma, find it impossible to avoid the bleaker details of this often violent and profoundly illegal profession. Yet if a happy-go-lucky drug-trafficker biopic was going to get made, it would be the story of Howard Marks. This is not to say that the new film, “Mr. Nice,” is an entirely rosy depiction of a genuinely rocky life. Simply put, both Marks and his herb of choice fall into the most light-hearted corner of the industry and the movie does a wonderful job of emphasizing that sense of emotional buoyancy.
At one point Marks, played here appropriately by fellow Welshman Rhys Ifans, personally controlled 10% of the world’s hashish trade. Yet despite his kingpin status and connections with everyone from the Mafia and the IRA to MI6, he turns out to be one of the least intimidating or brutal drug dealers on film. It’s not just that his most famous alias, “Mr. Nice,” is the title of the movie. His entire attitude towards the drug seems to stem not from the rough criminality so crucial to understanding “Scarface” and other darker characters, but rather a love for and belief in the natural high. His activism on behalf of the legalization movement has continued well after the end of his dealing career and has led him to run for public office, record music and appear in a variety of ridiculous television programs. He’s got the kind of flexible humor that makes for great cinema.
Of course, the sense of comedy is more than a little necessary in this biopic, so otherwise identical to the basic plot structure of the criminal biopic. He starts out young and naïve in Wales, gradually falls into the counterculture first at Oxford and then in London, and gets into the hashish trade. Marks then climbs the ladder of success, achieving the international fame and fortune that fills so many a joyful montage in this kind of movie. And finally there’s the fall, the arrest and imprisonment by the United States. Without the relaxed tenor of this tycoon and his associates, the whole thing would be little more than an unfortunate rehash of an old story.
Yet in place of the constant tropes of the genre, such as bloody firefights and elaborate heists, “Mr. Nice” is a series of chuckle-ridden hashish drop-offs and absurd run-ins with the law. Marks and his contacts use silly code words, send adorable Irish octogenarians through customs with bags of their product, and spend their free time distracting themselves with entirely ridiculous sexual escapades. Even the trials and tribulations of his family seem somehow less dramatically morose than they might be in another film. Marks’ children are shown to be remarkably devoted, and all evidence of the eventual break-up of his marriage to the long-suffering Judy (played by a dedicated Chloë Sevigny) is excised from the plot. This lighthearted spirit turns the often dark world of drug trafficking into a strangely upbeat tale of risk, thrilling financial success and uniquely entertaining extralegal exploits.
As a final point, it’s worth noting that what little genuine violence there is in the film revolves around Marks’ IRA collaborator Jim McCann, here played brilliantly to the hilt by David Thewlis. The veteran English actor manages to balance the hardened revolutionary virtues of a dangerous terrorist and the hilarious insanity of a criminal maniac. Perhaps more than any other element of “Mr. Nice,” McCann’s unreal behavior drives home the strange sensation of light-hearted comedy well outside the law and surrounded by potential for financial disaster and personal destruction. It’s the icing on the cake of this oddly delightful film, and my only real complaint is Thewlis and director Bernard Rose aren’t out making a spin-off Jim McCann biopic right now.
“Mr. Nice” is now available on DVD
Recommended if you like: “Blow”; “Pineapple Express”; “Bronson”