Based on the compelling life story of international drug trafficker Howard Marks, “Mr. Nice” stars an understated Rhys Ifans as the titular kingpin. Though the film takes a while to cast its spell, writer-director-cinematographer Bernard Rose’s close observation of Marks and those around him becomes increasingly involving and allows Rose to comment on the widespread failure of the war on drugs.
It would seem that Marks was a born con man. A superlative student, he left behind his small-town Wales childhood to attend Oxford, where he quickly was caught up in the sex-and-drugs culture of the ‘60s. In no time he saw that drug-dealing was a way to make big money, and with luck, imagination and daring he turned himself into a kingpin, also becoming an informant for British Intelligence to help protect his own interests. (At one point Marks steals the identity of a well-mannered family man whose name actually is Nice, earning him his ironic alias.)
Marks’ operations are incredibly far-flung, and among the key people in his life are a fiery Irish Republican Army leader (David Thewlis), an American drug dealer (Crispin Glover) and an implacable DEA agent (Luis Tosar). His constant expansion of his drug empire parallels his intense love affair with Judy (ChloÃ« Sevigny), a relationship that produces four children.
“Mr. Nice” is a handsomely designed and photographed film that gains much momentum from a pulsating score composed by Philip Glass. Rose is never manipulative, never exploitative and never judgmental. He makes more demands of audiences than many filmmakers do, but “Mr. Nice” is all the stronger for it.