43 aliases, 4 kids, 89 phone lines. Among his associates are members of the Mafia, CIA, IRA and MI6. Marijuana connoisseur, school teacher, money launderer, gentleman, fugitive and spy; raconteur, travel agent, writer, philosopher of science, rock promoter, public speaker, board game appreciator and the biggest dope smuggler on the planet. He has his own website which is very ganja-friendly, and he wrote a sequel to the autobiographical book this film is based on called Senor Nice. He's also written Dope Stories, and the upcoming Tripping. He has a show on YouTube, and in the words of Rhys Ifans, "He's a folk hero in the UK, but in Wales, he's a hero."
So how do you turn a book about a (folk) hero into a film? Director Bernard Rose (Candyman, Immortal Beloved, ivansxtc) has attempted to do it with a mixture of different styles, archival stock footage, and performances from Rhys Ifans and Chloe Sevigny. Ifans might not be the first name that jumps to mind when you think historical figure, but just watch that YouTube footage above and you'll see why they went with Ifans. It would be either down to him or Geoffrey Rush. Since Ifans is Welsh, just like Marks, and had a history with the man, that casting made a lot more sense.
As a young boy, Marks (Rhys Ifans) is a top student, but he's constantly teased by the other boys. Even when he's an awkward teenager, he's bullied by the other students. After winning a spot at extremely prestigious Oxford, in the blink of an eye he's smoking pot for the first time. Everything is in black and white up to this moment, and when he takes his first drag, color seeps into the world. He delves into harder material with one hit of LSD, but when he snaps out of his stupor, he's face to face with an overdosed student in a laying in a pool of vomit.
He doesn't return to the hard stuff after this, but he does take pot by the horns and goes to town. He attempts to go on the straight and narrow with his girlfriend after graduating, but it isn't long before he's slowly dipping his toes back in the pool, and after a friend gets arrested for smuggling pot across the border, he picks up the cause and quickly escalates from newbie pot dealer to a man who has clearly bitten off more than he can chew. There's no grand scheme behind his actions, he just stumbles blindly towards accidental success almost unwillingly. Although he's quick to wallow in the massive amounts of money he's making.
It's not long before he's importing extreme amounts of pot and getting involved with Jim McCann (David Thewlis) of the IRA. Thewlis chews up every single splinter of scenery in this role when he's onscreen, and he upstages Marks in both words and actions. He's the wild cannon that you'd expect Marks to be, brandishing guns and constantly on the run from the British government. In one triumphant scene, he's surrounded by police in Atlanta, and after surrendering at gunpoint, he fires at them with an Uzi and detonates green smoke bombs while vanishing into the ether while laughing maniacally. According to Rose, he's still on the run.
Importing pot and dealing with McCann becomes Marks' life on a daily basis. He meets Judy, whom he marries and sires children with, and continues becoming the Potfather of the UK. Until he realizes the large market he's not tapping into in North America, and his first trip over for a drug deal goes terribly wrong. He's arrested, and during the trial he plays his trump card: he's actually an undercover agent for MI6. Oddly enough, there's a bit of truth to this. A former classmate works for the government, and he tells Howard that they could use him to help get to higher ups in the IRA, like McCann. He's given a sort of "Get Out of Jail Free" card in the form of a phone number.
Not only does he use that phone number, but he once he reveals who he's "working for" in court, he embellishes the story to include the Mexican government, the Mexican Secret Service, and more. He produces dubious witnesses and half-truths, and remarkably ... he's acquitted. Of course, this doesn't stop him. He swears to Judy that he'll go clean, he actually does for awhile. But it's not long before the siren song lures him back, and he's arrested again. Only now he does end up serving hard time to the tune of seven years, out of a 25 year sentence.
That's the nuts and bolts of Howard Marks, at least in how they're roughly assembled in Mr. Nice (which itself is fake identity adopted by Marks). But it's these same nuts and bolts that are really the most appealing part of the story. If nothing else, Mr. Nice serves to make you want to read the book, simply because the movie can't contain the entire story. It also feels emotionally flat through much of the film. Marks' early arrest at school, his subsequent dealings with McCann, and his court case feel like they've been emotionally drained. Rather than an EKG chart of ups and downs, Mr. Nice often flatlines.
Rose's direction also takes some odd turns, including the usage of a lot of stock footage that he greenscreens the actors into: arrivals at JFK, crossing the street in London, etc. It's unclear if those are meant to work in earnest, or stand out as a storytelling device. They really only serve as a large distraction to the viewer, who begins playing a game of "Where's Marks?" each time one of the grainy stock scenes appear. He does achieve some interesting results by using during film stocks to match the time periods, and the film is adequately shot, but it leaves you wanting something more substantial than another toke.