Mr. Nice, certainly an inviting moniker for a drug dealer, is one of a number of aliases used by Howard Marks (Rhys Ifans), an Oxford-educated smuggler who, at the height of his career, controlled 10 percent of the world’s hashish trade. The film, which begins sometime in the 1960s, quickly establishes Marks’s unusual blend of cunning and awkwardness, a combo that would allow him to talk his way in and out of precarious scenarios with the IRS and MI6, among many others, which quickly proved him to be a reliable mover who could navigate territories that would trump more obvious suspects. Marks is a dealer who’s all the more effective for his personal conviction in his cause; he believes, like most sensible people across the ages, that weed should be legal, and that its prolonged illegality is simply a symptom of government manipulation and corruption. Marks would, like many rebels, eventually be forced by saidgovernments to atone for his rejection of their seemingly arbitrary rules.
Writer-director Bernard Rose effectively conjoures an atompshere of poetic stoned-1960s British rebellion, a feeling of woozy, intoxicating possibility that will not-so-eventually be squashed. Rose has a flair for dreamy, attention-getting images that effectively establish Marks’s induction, and seduction, into the drug game. Marks literally fell into his destiny, enticed by a hypnotically beautiful flower child who embodies the kind of woman he could never,given his working-class Welsh roots, imagine obtaining. Ifans, a devilish, surprising performer who hasn’t had the career he deserves, is wonderful in these opening scenes, as he understands the calculation, self-loathing, and just-roll-with-it self-effacement of a person who’s basically a cypher. Marks’s innocence, or appearance of innocence, is his secret weapon, but his other weapon is obsession. Marks is a hashish dealer and nothing else, and nothing else can give him a buzz—pun fully intended.
Yet the film, after these early moody sexy moments, never comes to life, and that’s primarily because Marks’s obsession never evolves, he remains remote and vaguely inhuman—a cypher the film never makes any full sense of. Ifans remains as fine as the role ultimately allows, but there simply isn’t much to play, and you lose sympathy for him, which is clearly unintentional. Rose also, fatally, lacks an instinct for action, which causes the second half of the film to devolve into a series of mostly redundant globe-trotting drug-running clichés. The second half of Mr. Nice is like the last 30 minutes of Goodfellas...on qualudes.
Which is regrettable, as Mr. Nice has a number of lively moments that suggest a comedy of the inevitablity of radicals selling out—a movie that ultimately gets away from Rose. Christian McKay, who should be a star anyway after Me and Orson Welles, is memorable as a pot-smoking artiste-turned-MI6-agent; and Crispin Glover, whom I normally find insufferably pseudo-hip, uses that consciously honed eccentricity to his advantage here as an American who ultimately rats Marks out. But Mr. Nice lacks the unifying thematic rage, or drive, that might have tied the good moments into a coherent, satisfying whole. Ultimately, the film may be too damn nice.