REVIEW: Mr. Nice Spins a Tall Tale of Drug Smuggling and Derring-do

Movieline Score: 8

Self-mythology has a bad name, especially among honest, discreet folk who prefer to downplay their good qualities and undersell their achievements. To hell with that: Mr. Nice is a devilish and entertaining little picture based on the possibly somewhat true story of Howard Marks, who began life in a humble middle-class family in Wales, got into Oxford just by being a really smart kid, and eventually realized he could make a lot more money smuggling drugs from the Middle East into the United Kingdom (and later into the States) than he could by teaching. Marks outfoxed the authorities for years, before finally getting caught in 1988. He served seven years in an American prison before emerging with the 1996 autobiography, full of tall tales and derring-do, on which this movie is based.

You don't have to believe all of it -- or even any of it -- to enjoy the rascally charms of Mr. Nice, which was written and directed by Bernard Rose. Actually, the movie was written, directed, shot and co-edited by Bernard Rose, which sort of makes him a virtual one-man band, like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. But any potential control-freak tendencies on Rose's part probably work in the movie's favor: He's dealing, after all, with a character who's written himself to be larger than life. Why not pull out all the stops?

Rhys Ifans plays Marks, who, as a young post-graduate trying to make it as a teacher in early '70s London, learns all too quickly how easy it is to smuggle hashish across international borders without getting caught. He's a gentleman among smugglers, and also a ladykiller: After the dissolution of an early, hasty marriage, he meets sexy, drowsy-eyed blond Judy (Chloë Sevigny), who will eventually bear him three kids. As a couple, the two have their ups and downs: During the rough times, when Marks has to lie low to avoid arrest, they're stuck hiding out in a camper van. But when times are good, they're really good, involving lots of Studio 54 revelry and palatial digs in Majorca. That's when it really is pretty nice to be Mr. Nice, which is one of the pseudonyms Marks used to escape arrest.

But wait, there's more: Because Marks had professional ties with an IRA wheeler-dealer (played, with a suitable degree of explosive craziness, by David Thewlis), he was eventually recruited as a spy by the British government. Drug smuggler, double-agent, raconteur: You couldn't make this stuff up. Though there's no doubt that Marks, in his own telling of the story, embellished it plenty, and in bringing it to the screen, Rose -- who may be best known as the director of the 1992 cult favorite Candyman, starring Virginia Madsen -- runs with that go-for-broke spirit. At one point Marks reveals, in a purring voice-over, that the IRA, the DEA, customs and excise, the police and the press are all after him. He's been a very bad boy, and he's loved every minute of it.

Ifans, wearing a lush, shaggy dark wig, is great fun to watch -- he looks like a rangier, more dissolute (and much sexier) David Cassidy. And as Ifans handles it, Marks' continual self-aggrandizing becomes a form of entertainment by itself: There's enough "Who, me?" self-deprecation lurking beneath his braggadocio to keep us from hating him. That, and the fact that he really did suffer in prison. (We become witnesses to a rather unpleasant tooth-pulling scene.)

But even then, Marks does good by teaching his fellow inmates English and even, in some cases, using his prodigious coconut to help them obtain shorter sentences. (His own sentence was originally close to 25 years; he was released on parole in the mid-1990s. He also insists that he never dealt in hard drugs.) Marks is the scrapper who always comes out on top, although when he brags at one point in the film, "I'd just imported enough Columbian marijuana into the UK to get every inhabitant of the British Isles stoned," we can see why he's headed for a fall. Not because what he's doing is wrong, but because he needs a rest -- no one can keep up that pace for a lifetime. Rose doesn't lay out Marks' story as clearly as he might have -- certain details and chronologies become tangled and murky -- but as a portrait of a charming rapscallion and entrepreneur, Mr. Nice serves admirably. As the Small Faces sang in their own drug-dealer paean Here Comes the Nice, "I'd be just like him, if I only could." Luckily, there's room in the world for only one.

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