With his ski-slope nose, sleepy eyes and elongated face, Welsh actor Rhys Ifans brings to mind David Warner, one of the signal British actors of the 1960s and 1970s (who went on to play a string of villain roles, including in Titanic and the Dr. Who series).
In Mr. Nice, now in limited release, Ifans wears a perpetually stoned smile, playing real-life drug dealer Howard Marks. But, like everything from Goodfellas to Blow to Rush, the pattern dictates that what goes up must come down -- hard.
So, unfortunately, Bernard Rose's film about Marks' life follows a predictable path. But it's one you're not sorry to take -- mostly -- because Ifans slouches through it so enjoyably.
Beginning in the mid-1960s -- when he matriculated at Oxford -- the film follows Marks' wild ride, most of which involves him stumbling into one opportunity after another. "I don't use drugs," he says as a freshman, when offered his first joint -- but he takes a toke anyway. Before long, he's hosting pot and LSD-fueled debauches in his dorm room.
He does a favor for a friend -- and goes to Germany to drive a car back that has a backseat stuffed with hashish. Before long, he's regularly making the circuit, earning stacks of cash for smuggling pounds of hash and weed back to Great Britain.
Eventually, it becomes a question of scale -- and he makes a connection in Pakistan to ship tons of the stuff. Which leads him to a much-hunted IRA terrorist, Jim McCann (David Thewlis), who wants to utilize Howard's trafficking route to bring guns to Great Britain.
Then Howard receives a visit from an old school chum (Christian McKay), who wants him to become a source for MI6, offering information on the IRA. But as Marks notes in his voice-over narration, it's one thing to be an informer -- it's another to pretend to cooperate and reap the rewards of having the government in his back pocket.
But because this is a true story, rather than a piece of fiction, it can only go one way -- down. And that's where Rose's film loses energy.
For much of the first half, Rose uses obvious green-screen composites, super-imposing Ifans (in his shag wig) against backdrops of the period: from Trafalgar Square to Los Angeles International Airport, It's an intriguing visual approach, but one he dispenses with at about the halfway point.
As long as Ifans' Howard Marks is skipping along, enjoying an amazing streak of luck and chutzpah in his dealings with the law, this film has a bounce to its step that keeps it flying high. But as the forces of law enforcement tighten the net on Howard and his colleagues, the film turns darker and more predictable.
Rose also underemploys Chloe Sevigny, as the young woman who becomes Howard's wife and the mother of his four kids. Aside from rolling in bed with him or crying piteously when he's arrested, she has nothing to do.
Ifans, however, keeps a twinkle in his eye and a sly look on his face, injecting a laidback energy (if that's not too much of an oxymoron) into his scenes. He's a hustler -- but he's also a guy who can't quite believe he's getting away with the stuff he's pulling (including an outlandish courtroom ploy utilizing his government connection to beat a drug charge).
Mr. Nice is an interesting story told in a half-good film. But it's a treat to see Ifans in a role that lets him stretch his lanky charm.