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Mr. Nice -- Film Review

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AUSTIN -- The pro-pot movement gets another champion, albeit a self-interested one, in "Mr. Nice," a biopic of the Welshman Britain's Daily Mirror once called "the most sophisticated drugs baron of all time." The subject's unfamiliarity limits Stateside appeal, but solid performances and a strong sense of cool should help the film reach a bit beyond its niche.

Rhys Ifans plays Howard Marks not only as an adult but, in brief introductory flashbacks, as a schoolboy whose smarts made him something of an outcast. The adult-playing-child conceit may lead viewers to expect a film with a Michel Gondry-like experimental bent, which is misleading: Aside from some fake-looking (intentionally so, one assumes) effects that insert the actor into stock footage of '70s England -- a peculiar choice that should go over well with stoned viewers -- the movie, pardon the expression, plays things straight.

We watch as Marks quickly goes from an upstanding Oxford student to '60s experimenter, then cleans up in time to graduate and become a schoolteacher. But a favor for an old friend leads to a lucrative hash-smuggling trip, and after seeing all that cash Marks's legit career vanishes in a puff of smoke.

Unlike many drug-dealer portraits, "Mr. Nice" doesn't dwell much on the trappings of wealth or seductive nightlife; rather, it is hypnotized by Ifans' unflappable performance and fascinated with a few details of the smuggler's career, particularly his involvement with a self-mythologizing IRA figure played with relish by David Thewlis.

 

In his attempt to carve a digestible narrative out of a chaotic life, writer-director Bernard Rose doesn't convey what it was that made Marks such a celebrity in Great Britain. He became a counterculture hero to many (including Ifans, who reportedly wrote to him after he was caught and sentenced to an American prison term), and has in recent years had great success with a memoir and speaking tours. Aside from Ifans' charismatic performance, there's little here to set Marks apart from any number of cinematic drug merchants.

The picture uses a light touch in making its legalize-pot points, and any claim to idealism is undercut by Marks' willingness to partner with arms smugglers in order to get his product into Europe. Marks evidently does a fine job of winning admirers on his own; this big-screen adaptation, though enjoyable, is more likely to keep that flock entertained than to bring many new fans into the fold.

Venue: South by Southwest Festival

Sales agent/production company: Independent
Cast: Rhys Ifans, Chloe Sevigny, David Thewlis, Luis Tosar, Crispin Glover, Omad Djalili, Jamie Harris, Christian McKay, Elsa Pataky, Jack Huston
Director: Bernard Rose
Screenwriter: Bernard Rose
Executive producers: Paul Brett, Linda James, Norman Merry, David Nash, Andrew Orr, James Perkins, Michael Robinson, Daniel Shepherd, Tim Smith
Producer: Luc Roeg
Director of photography: Bernard Rose
Production designer: Max Gottlieb
Music: Philip Glass
Costume designer: Caroline Harris
Editor: Bernard Rose
No MPAA rating, 120 minutes