Born in a rugby-mad Welsh mining town, Howard Marks (Ifans) knew he didn't fit in and proved it by getting into Oxford against the odds. There he immediately falls into the early-1960s brainy/druggy crowd, dealing marijuana but never anything harder. Despite efforts to go straight, he continually returns to trafficking, arguing that it's not a crime to break an immoral law. But his associations with a notorious IRA terrorist (Thewlis) and a rule-bending Indian businessman (Djalili) attract the attentions of a tenacious American agent (Tosar).
Marks' life is extremely cyclical, which leaves the film a somewhat repetitive series of women, drug deals, clean-up attempts, arrests and court cases. The film takes its title from Marks' falsified identity as Donald Nice, under which he lived quietly with his wife (Sevigny) and kids until the law caught up with them. But the most intriguing element is how MI6 worked with Marks to keep an eye on the IRA, which had the smuggling network he needed.
In other words, this is a film that blurs moral lines while vividly capturing the zeitgeist. Writer-director Rose inventively evokes settings by recreating period movie styles and blending in stock footage from the times. It's a simple but clever trick that puts Marks' actions sharply in context, including the free-love 60s and Reagan's 80s war on drugs ("How do you declare war on a plant?"). This also lets the action zip around the world from Kabul to Indiana.
It's also sometimes bewildering, with a large number of characters and situations. But at the centre Ifans delivers a magnetic, robust performance that's both funny and surprisingly introspective. His hilarious interaction with the wonderfully prickly Thewlis is the best thing about the film. And all of the actors invest a gleeful energy that makes it sometimes rather hyperactive, but also a lot of fun. Yet when things get emotional, we really feel it. And the overriding comment on drugs is something that has needed to be said for a long time.
Run time: 45 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 9th October 2002
Box Office Worldwide: $851 thousand
Production compaines: Independent, Prescience, Lipsync Productions, Kanzaman
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Bernard Rose
Producer: Luc Roeg
Screenwriter: Bernard Rose
Starring: Rhys Ifans as Howard Marks, Chloë Sevigny as Judy Marks, David Thewlis as Jim McCann, Elsa Pataky as Ilze, Olivia Grant as Alice, Luis Tosar as Craig Lovato, Crispin Glover as Ernie Combs, Omid Djalili as Saleem Malik, Christian McKay as Hamilton McMillan, Andrew Tiernan as Alan Marcuson, Jack Huston as Graham Plinston, Ken Russell as Russell Miegs