Movie Review: Mr Nice

Until they make a movie about 'the guy from The Sparks', this will do fine

When I was at university, there was a contingent of students I didn’t so much know but tolerate, who held Howard Marks autobiography Mr Nice in much higher regard than any designated text on our course. I imagine I’m not the only 30-year-old former student to have the same memories – but at least I have them, eh?

Thanks to a roguish column in the Loaded magazine of the time and an association with the Super Furry Animals – principally, it must be said, due to the fact his surname rhymed with the line “the guy from The Sparks” – hashish smuggler Marks forged a brief career as a counterculture hero in the late nineties – pitching himself as something akin to Robin Hood with rock burns in his green smock or Dick Turpin with a bucket bong. I always thought a drug dealer seemed a strange choice of hero – few treated the guy in the Saab in the supermarket car park as a deity – but then, quite literally, marijuana has always made it hard for many otherwise rational, intelligent types to see the wood for the herb.

The Cult Of Marks were slow witted, lumbering idiots, who giggled at bushes, ate Pringles by the fistful and hung appalling posters from the poster fair on their wall. I watched as their days passed them by, cocooned in a bubble with no sharp edges, no stereo sound and a disintegrating grip on rationality. Without wanting to sound like Richard Littlejohn here, I’ve been suspicious of weed ever since, and from the off I’ll admit that it prejudices my appreciation of Mr Nice’s cinematic conversion knowing that these people are out there somewhere “really, like, woah” looking forward to seeing this film.

Yet somehow, despite my misgivings over the good Marks’ media career brought to the population of a Sunderland Polytechnic, let alone the wider world, I found myself enjoying Bernard Rose’s Mr Nice immensely. Much of this is to do with Rose’s excellent direction (I hereby dedicate the words within these brackets to the genius of his 1992 horror Candyman), the film pitching itself as a zingy, amoral comedy thriller, which saves any soul searching of whether it’s right to deify the life of a drug dealer for you to do in your own time, and saving the action on screen for epic retro car chases and Marks vs. the constabulary part 1, 2 and 3 (spoiler: 3 doesn’t really end that well).

But how much I enjoyed the film largely to do with the fact that the Welshman’s life story is undoubtedly a tale worth telling. It has after all taken in liaisons with the IRA, MI6, a string of dubious Middle Eastern businessmen and the mafia, which, truth be told, is more action than the last couple of Bond movies contained. And it’s a journey that begins with him wining a scholarship to Oxford, takes in a seven-year stretch in a US federal penitentiary and ends with him writing the source material in turn played out by fellow countryman Rhys Ifans. Speaking of whom…

Ifans is another unlikely reason why I enjoyed the movie, and turns in a performance which lights the touch-paper for a critical renaissance that should by rights culminate with him accepting plaudits for his role of villain The Lizard in the forthcoming Spiderman reboot. In recent years Ifans has come across more like someone who gets paid a retainer to get drunk with Oasis than an actor of note, and his soft spoken, likeable portrayal of a man you imagine he really does idolize goes someway to reminding me that I really rather enjoyed his work when he turned up in Twin Town back in 1997.

He turns in some excellent interplay with Chloe Sevigny in the role of Mrs Marks too, and anyone who can coax something out of the actress that doesn’t make her sound like she’s reading her lines with disinterest on the toilet deserves credit in my book.

It pains me to say it, but Mr Nice is an enjoyable movie. It’s frequently funny, it’s affable and charming in that way all the best British comedies always are and it’s a retelling of a story quite remarkable in that someone undertook it and lived to tell the tale. But yeah, if anyone I went to University with who ever offered me a spliff is reading this, I still think you’re all dicks.

James McMahon