Rhys Ifans is a truly great actor who’s been relegated to many small, overly quirky roles (think the weirdo roommate in “Notting Hill” or the occult-inspired character in “Harry Potter”). In “Mr. Nice,” Ifans gets a chance to shine as a leading man, but although the film bears a more than passing interest there’s no denying it lacks a certain spark.
Writer/Director Bernard Rose, best known for his films “Immortal Beloved” (1994) and “Candyman” (1992), has crafted a solid script around the true-life tale of Howard Marks, an Oxford-educated Welshman who starts studying literature and ends up running an international drug smuggling operation. Marks didn’t exactly set out to be a drug kingpin, but he didn’t fall into a life of crime by accident, either: once he saw how much money a friend was making running hashish back and forth across Europe, he could hardly keep his mind off it. It’s this moral ambivalence that makes the film relevant and noteworthy.
Chloe Sevigny, who also makes the film worth watching, co-stars as Marks’ long-suffering girlfriend, and the two do a great job of portraying a tumultuous but genuinely affectionate relationship. Over the years they have four children together and jet around Europe and America, always trying to stay one step ahead of the relevant authorities. However, the pieces of the film that should be its most dramatic points—the piles of money, the crushing police busts—are carried out with the same feeling of detached observation as an early scene of Marks reading at Oxford.
Rose likely decided to shoot the film this way on purpose, as a response to the hyped-up Hollywood image of drug smugglers (think “Blow” or “Traffic”), and the fact that he was telling the story of a real person’s life.
“Mr. Nice” works well as a period piece, beginning in the Sixties and, through an innovative use of green-screening convincingly bringing the story all the way into the late Nineties. But though there’s nothing truly wrong with this film, the emotional arc of the story just isn’t quite there; it’s never as surprising or clever as you can tell it wants to be.