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MOVIE REVIEW: Drug-dealing 'Mr. Nice' falls short

Mr. Nice

(NR)

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

Making a movie featuring a congenial drug-dealer is a tall order but that hasn't stopped many from trying. It was done with Johnny Depp in "Blow," Christian Slater in "True Romance" and to a lesser extent, Timothy Olyphant, in "Go" and Jason Mewes in the "Jay and Silent Bob" franchise. For the record, Cheech & Chong only dealt part-time and Harold & Kumar don't deal at all; they're just jovial, higher-profile stoners.

Mr. Nice is the alias Howard Marks (Rhys Ifans) gave himself for a couple of reasons. For one, he was actually nice. An Oxford graduate with well-tuned social skills, he could charm and wax philosophical and felt (as most people did and still do) that hashish and marijuana were "soft" drugs. In the world of moonshine, Marks sold light beer.

At one point in the early '70s, it has been conservatively estimated that Marks controlled 10 percent of the world's entire marijuana trade and was noteworthy in the drug underworld for what he didn't do: he never sold "hard" drugs (cocaine, heroin, pills, LSD, etc.).

Not calculating or ambitious (at least in the beginning) Marks was in the right place at the exact right time. When he stumbled upon a lost stash of weed, turned it over quickly and pocketed a healthy profit, Marks saw selling pot as a way to afford him a lifestyle he didn't enjoy as a lower middle-class kid growing up in Wales. It was a means to an end that led to something far more lucrative than anything he could have imagined.

Based on Marks' biography of the same name, the biggest downfall of "Mr. Nice" is that it looks like a movie made by someone who was stoned at the time. Shooting for probably more realism than he should have, director Bernard Rose includes some scenes out of "Easy Rider." An out-of-control camera pans a room where an orgy (a mostly clothed orgy) is taking place with distorted audio and visuals and a psychedelic score blaring in the background. Shortly thereafter Rose includes the Deep Purple song "Lazy" in another scene cementing his own narrative laziness.

There are a few notable supporting performances strewn throughout which, like most of what happened at the time, weave in and out of frame and don't quite stick. Chloe Sevigny -- turning in a horrible British accent -- makes for a cheerful drug baron wife and David Thewlis of "Harry Potter" fame plays a mysterious member of the IRA who expands Marks' commercial reach.

Always great at playing unhinged types, Ifans (also a "Potter" vet) is remarkably restrained here, keeping Marks even-keel throughout, which would make sense for a guy involved in an illegal, multi-million dollar trade who is trying to stay one step ahead of international drug enforcement authorities.

As good as he is, Ifans (now 44) is unfairly called on by Rose to play both a 20-ish and a much older man at various points in the film. With the right make-up, anyone can play older but going the other direction is a tough sell. It would have probably worked better if Rose had cast a younger actor (perhaps Tom Felton -- yet another "Potter" regular) to play Marks in the early stages.

Considering what he did when he did it, Marks paid a relatively small price for his actions. As he's still alive and making a comfortable living as a full-time speaker/author and part-time actor, Marks is also probably the last guy any country would want to use an example of what can happen to someone who sells huge quantities of illegal drugs.

All things considered, Marks basically walked between the raindrops of the world's judicial system. He's not as sexy or as powerful as say, Al Pacino's fictional Tony Montana in "Scarface," but he also wasn't on the unwanted end of automatic gunfire. Most people would consider Marks' fate to be impossibly blessed and fortuitous. (MPI Media)