Ifans portrays Marks, a real-life Welsh marijuana smuggler who ran one of the biggest global cannabis smuggling operations from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, mostly while on the run. Marks associated with some of the more colourful characters of the era, allegedly even cutting deals with the likes of the FBI, the Mafia, the IRA and MI6. After serving time in Terre Haute, one of the "toughest" prisons in the United States, Marks stopped smuggling and dealing in cannabis (although he still openly used the drug himself), and gained wider fame as a pro cannabis campaigner, stand-up comedian, actor (at least in cameos), lads mag columnist, television show panelist, music producer, motivational speaker, and even prospective Member of Parliament.
Like Marks' autobiography on which it is based, the film has polarized critics.
The film begins in 2010, with a 65-year-old Howard Marks going onto a stage in front of a packed theatre to great applause. Marks asks if there are any plain-clothes policemen sat in the audience, to which the reply is negative. Then, while lighting up a joint, Marks asks "who here is a dope (marijuana) smoker?", to even greater applause. The film then diverts into Marks' internal monologue as he recounts his life.
Born in the Welsh valleys in 1945, young Howard Marks (Rhys Ifans) – later nicknamed Mr Nice – excels academically to much higher than the national standard of the United Kingdom. This remarkable aptitude earns him a scholarship to Oxford University at nineteen years old, reading philosophy and physics, but Marks' destiny changes forever one night when dutifully studying alone in his dorm. A beautiful, rebellious and hedonistic foreign exchange student from Latvia, Ilze Kadegis (Elsa Pataky) - breaks into Marks' room, looking for a secret passageway within. Marks follows Kadegis through the secret passageway and into a forgotten storage space used by one of the school's top marijuana dealers, Graham Plinson (Jack Huston). Kadegis seduces Marks, and introduces him to cannabis for the first time. For the next few years, Marks becomes an enthusiastic customer of Plinson's, and continues his love affairs with both Kadegis and cannabis; the group enjoy a series of wilder and wilder nights, with their academic lives suffering as a result.
Circumstances change for the worse when Plinson introduces the group to LSD. When rich heir Joshua Macmillan, a friend of Marks', dies of an overdose, and Marks impales his foot on a spike, Marks vows to never touch drugs again - or at least the harder variety of drugs. The trio of Marks, Kadegis and Plinson promise to each other to turn over a new leaf, and they pass their scholarships through some intense last-minute revision, and a little cheating. They then all move on to teacher training courses at the University of London in 1967, where Marks hastily marries Kadegis. Fractures begin appearing in the early stages of the marriage, with Marks becoming despondent, apathetic and suspecting Kadegis of having an affair. What is more, Marks gets into trouble at the London University for "having long hair and flashy suits".
When plans to bring a large cache of hashish into England via Germany go wrong with Plinson getting arrested, Marks steps in to help - figuring he has nothing left to lose anyway. Marks goes to Germany and drives the car with the stash inside across the borders himself, simply driving through customs. The customs officers are on the lookout for Plinson's crew, but do not know Marks, who sails through without incident. Marks says the thrill of getting away with it was like "religious flash and an asexual orgasm". When selling the hashish back in London to an Arab oil sheik named Saleem Malik (Omid Djalili), Marks makes a fortune, and swiftly becomes addicted to this new but dangerous lifestyle as a big league marijuana trafficker - eventually running a large percentage of the world's cannabis.
It is a path that will lead Marks face-to-face with terrorists, government agents, and lose him his freedom to one of the toughest prisons in the United States in 1988, through to the present day as a media personality and cult hero.Rhys Ifans as Howard Marks
Chloë Sevigny as Judy Marks
Jack Huston as Graham Plinson
Crispin Glover as Ernie Combs
David Thewlis as 'Jim' James McCann
Omid Djalili as Saleem Malik
Elsa Pataky as Ilze
Andrew Tiernan as Alan Marcuson
Jamie Harris as Patrick Lane
Christian McKay as Hamilton McMillan
Ken Russell as Russell Miegs
After Howard Mark's 1997 autobiography Mr Nice became a best-seller (ranked #1 book regarding drugs on Amazon.com), and Marks began to make a name for himself in a number of different media, a film adaptation of the book was petitioned. In development hell for over a decade, the production of the film was an eventual collaboration between a number of smaller studios, such as Independent Productions, Kanzaman Productions S.L, Séville Pictures, Prescience, Lipsync Productions LLP and the Wales Creative IP Fund. Howard Marks was himself the main consultant for the film and Ifans. The DVD includes a commentary by Howard Marks, as well as a featurette with Rhys Ifans joining Marks on one of his stand-up shows and impersonating him to the delight of the crowd - with the both of them getting intoxicated to the point of incoherence. Mr Nice was filmed in 2009 in Benidorm, Spain. The film features a 1960s pop-inspired soundtrack by Philip Glass, with original songs reflective of the era such as Deep Purple, Fraternity of Man and John Lennon.
Whereas both the book and film are claimed as fact by Marks himself, there are differences between the two. Certain portions of the book are missing in the film, such as the amount of time Marks spent organising deals during the 1980s in places such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok, although they are alluded to in the film - just not shown in any great detail. Some of the more interesting aspects of the book are missing from the film entirely however, such as any mention of the dozens of aliases and disguises Marks had while on the run. Perhaps one of the most significant claims in Marks' autobiography was perhaps left out of the film for political reasons - Marks claimed to have been befriended by Lord Moynihan, a British peer embroiled in vice scandal. Marks alleged Lord Moynihan betrayed him to the American Drug Enforcement Administration in a plea bargain, although there is no mention of this in the film.
Mr Nice made its worldwide premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Texas, United States, in March 2010 and was first shown in the UK at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June 2010. On 8 October 2010, it was released in the UK on 107 screens, taking in a first weekend gross of £528,534. In June 2011, it was released in the United States.
Mr Nice won the Award for Best Cinematography at the 2010 Kodak Awards.
Mr Nice polarized critics; the film currently has a rating of 55% on Rotten Tomatoes, with 24 out of 44 reviews being positive, and 20 being negative.
Dan Jolin of the film magazine Empire gave Mr Nice three out of five stars, writing "A solid, often entertaining life-of-crimer which benefits from some stylistic touches and a faithful, convincing central performance."
Kevin Thomas of Los Angeles Times gave the film 3.5 out of 5, calling the Philip Glass soundtrack "pulsating" and writing "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."
Time Out London gave the film four out of five stars, although it noted it was not without its flaws: "The film adaptation of Howard Marks' autobiography – a student staple throughout the land – struggles to capture the sheer breadth of Marks' life."
Benjamin Mercer of The Village Voice also gave a polarized review, awarding the film 3.5 out of 5, yet also claiming the film gave him the impression it was glorifying cannabis use, or at the very least, being a vehicle for the advocation of legalizing cannabis - "Though told here with appealing drollness, Marks' story makes an odd vessel for the filmmakers' casually advanced legalization arguments, what with its mischief making on the grandest scale possible."