Please Note: The images used here are promotional stills and are not taken from the Blu-ray edition under review.
Based on an autobiographical book recounting the life and times of a large-scale Welsh marijuana kingpin, Mr. Nice, directed by Bernard Rose (Immortal Beloved), revisits familiar rise-and-fall-in-a-legally-dubious-profession territory that has been well covered, perhaps most famously in recent times by Goodfellas and Boogie Nights. Unfortunately, this film has none of the passion, ambition, or savvy that those movies so clearly have in abundance, whatever else one might make of them. Even Ted Demme's Blow--a more than passable, enjoyable, but still rather faded facsimile of this type of epic biography--looks lively by comparison.
Rhys Ifans (Greenberg) is Howard Marks, a good, smart boy from the little burg of Kenfig Hill, Wales, who got picked on in school for getting high marks and appearing to have better prospects in life than his peers. He makes good on that promise when he escapes to Oxford on scholarship, and that is where his theretofore sheltered worldview clashes with the hippie-dom of the Sixties: free love, mind-expanding prose and poetry, and, most of all, lots and lots of hash. Marks takes to the drug like a duck to water, and when he finds that post-college teaching gigs, even when you've been graduated from Oxford, are hardly enough to make for a comfortable life in exciting, prohibitively expensive London, he's fully prepared to grab the brass ring that swings his way when his dealer, temporarily held up by an arrest, asks Marks to step in and fill his shoes on an international smuggling jaunt, and then market the huge quantity of high-quality pot, a task Marks proves even better at than partaking of the stuff himself.
Marks's ensuing adventures put him in the way of some colorful characters (and, eventually, some less amusing, more tragic run-ins with the law): Jim McCann (David Thewlis, Naked), a cranky and eccentric Irish Republican Army militant whose loudly proclaimed revolutionary ideals have to be finessed a bit to accommodate the funding of the actual revolution through the drug-money partnership of Marks; Hamilton McMillan (Christian McKay, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), an Oxford classmate who has found his own income supplementation by working for MI6 (the British CIA) and attempts to bribe and/or threaten Marks into being their IRA mole, betraying McCann and effectively transforming the apolitical, hedonistic drug smuggler into a double agent; and Ernie Combs (Crispin Glover), an insanely flaky Californian drug kingpin whose mellow vibes evaporate when it comes to the actual monetary transacting part of the business. Marks also meets the love of his life at Oxford in the form of Judy (Chloë Sevigny, Zodiac), a hippie chick who becomes his life partner and the mother of his children after his first marriage abruptly ends. Marks's cleverness and insouciance manage to keep his ever-expanding family in increasing international luxury and one step ahead of the law as fortune's smile carries him to the top of his game, and a good, carefree, globe-hobbing, swimming-pool-lounging, "54"-frequenting time is had by all. Until, of course, the other shoe drops and the law clamps down hard on this man who dared live high (in every respect) off of a relatively innocuous drug, vindictively destroying his paradise and forcing him and his family back to grim a perhaps unfairly grim reality.
In its overall structure and arc, Mr. Nice almost passively connects the dots on a template, though "connect" is the wrong word, since the film plays out in an episodic way that seems to have no rhyme or reason when it comes to how much time/emphasis is given to one event in Marks's life in preference over another. This approach is terminal for the film's emotional impact, which becomes virtually nonexistent, as we're never allowed even the most ambiguous or tenuous understanding of why the characters feel or respond the way they do at any given point, other than to keep the story moving forward. Even within these discrete, cut-off episodes that fail to coalesce into anything like a fully realized whole, there is a flat dutifulness, the mediocrity of which is only interrupted by an occasional particularly laughable, nonsensical, over-expository bit of dialogue ("Malena's boyfriend has become a junkie") or moment of forced whimsy (Thewlis is much too good an actor for this, and his character's "surreal" final moment would almost be offensive if it weren's so inept). What the film does have going for it are Philip Glass's pretty (if utterly incongruous) score and an interesting visual style through which the '60s and '70s period are created by Rose (who also worked as the film's cinematographer) and his team through what appears to be a clever mixture of CGI and rear projection (compliments must also go to Caroline Harris's spot-on costumes and Max Gottlieb's production design). Despite probably being motivated by cost-effectiveness, the nicely done images are one of the few things that sustain the film's watchability, almost distracting us from the smarmy voice-over narration Ifans is forced to intone, or poor Sevigny's frankly ridiculous in-and-out "British" accent, which makes Madonna sound like she was born in Buckingham Palace. (I am a frequent admirer of Sevigny's real talent, and it is but one of the many missteps the filmmakers made not to avoid undermining her by simply making her character an American, hiring a voice coach, or just casting a British actress.)
What we end up with in Mr. Nice is a disheartening example of ingenious and skillful production values being lavished upon an unworthy story and script, with the film's exuberant style only spotlighting the made-for-TV blandness of its every narrative aspect. The film just coasts along on idle, never once doing anything to convince us that Howard Marks is nearly as interesting as he or the filmmakers seem to think he is. There is nothing at all outrageously "bad" about Mr. Nice; but it is dull down to the bone, which in some ways is worse, since even outright badness (from The Bad Seed to Mommie Dearest) often at least has some wide-awake personality, which is something this film conspicuously lacks.
The disc does full justice to what is by far the best part of the film--its look, which goes all the way from sharp black-and-white to colors ranging from muted and cool to bright and shiny, with no unintended flaws or instability in the image at any point (there are moments of interpolated stock footage and rear projection whose non-pristine qualities are part of the film's intended aesthetic). Everything visual comes through perfectly well, in AVC/MPEG-4-encoded, 1080p-mastered, 1.85:1 aspect-ratio anamorphic widescreen.
Both audio options--DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and uncompressed PCM 2.0--are top of the line and offer equal clarity, fullness, and depth of sound, the major difference between the two being a closer concentration of sound with the PCM and a wider dispersal but slight spreading/thinning-out of the audio on the DTS.
Nothing but the film's theatrical trailer and an okay 10-minute making-of featurette, both of which are fairly run-of-the-mill and offer no particular additional appreciation of or insight into the film.
The rise and fall of a captivating criminal is a well-mined genre to which Mr. Nice adds absolutely nothing. The film does have moments of genuine interest courtesy its sometimes intriguingly unique visual approach, but on the whole, it is a halfhearted exercise, as if someone had fed the generalized, abstract components of this kind of picture into a computer that then spit out a bloodless-automaton version of it that is 100% free of any personal creative vision. At the very most, you may want to Rent It for a casual peek at its minor visual innovativeness and forget about the rest, which will happen of its own accord in any case.