Welshman Howard Marks became a world renowned international cannabis smuggler. At one time he controlled 10% of the world’s hashish trade. He maintained forty-three aliases, eighty-nine phone lines, and twenty five companies trading throughout the world. His money laundering vehicles included Bars, recording studios and offshore banks.
After a series of high profile court cases, which ousted his connections with the CIA, the IRA, MI6, and the Mafia, he was convicted by the American Drug Enforcement Administration and served seven years of his twenty-five year sentence at the Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary. Once released he began a world wide tour of his one man show, campaigning for the legalization of cannabis. Never out of print, his 1996 memoir of the same title sells 500 copies a week.
A working class Welsh boy, he won a postgraduate place at Oxford. The Philosophy student was an outsider in the world of privilege. Dealing pot put him at the center of the action and he became the Host With The Most.
Rhys Ifans (“Notting HIll”) is charmingly roguish as the philosopher turned dealer. Brit critics who have seen Marks onstage, claim the performance is uncanny. His long hangdog face (reminiscent of David Warner) loves the camera.
Director Bernard Rose (“ivans xtc”, “Candyman”) uses interesting cinematic flourishes to decorate the tale. Early black and white scenes with his family recall “Kitchen Sink” films of the 50’s and 60’s.
When the timid Welshman, drifts into a adjoining room in his residence hall at Balliol College, he encounters a hip group of students and (llegal female students) smoking pot. His fearful first toke turns the screen to color, introducing clever Howard’s transformation to the King of Hip.
Rose also creates charming process shots, placing his characters over color period footage, and integrates other archival footage without.
Adapting Marks’s autobiography, Rose canters through several decades of Mark’s amazing international career. Marks does a favor for a dealer friend Graham Plinston (Jack Huston), a simple smuggling delivery. When Graham is arrested, Marks substitutes. Laid-back Marks, an adept at following the flow, winds up in business with Provisional IRA radical Jim (‘The Shamrock Pimpernel”) McCann (David Thewlis), Delivering to Graham’s customer lands him his Hashish mastermind Saleem Malik (Omid Djalili), the key to the biggest Afghan source of the drug. Corrupt lawyer Patrick Lane (Jamie Harris) sets up the business schemes.
Thewlis has fun as an over the top paranoid, who tries to keep his IRA comrades in the dark about his drug deals through a series of far-fetched codenames. An embarrassment in public, he’s giving to drawing faces on his penis, flogging bestial porn and flipping out in public. ( In one escape, he sets off smoke bombs and eludes an American police ambush.
“I am Jim McCann of the Provisional IRA and I demand Prisoner Of War status, this will be a great story to tell the boys in the bar on Paddy’s Day” Berserker jim announces before firing his uzi and disappearing into the smoke.
Comely Elsa Pataky plays Marks’ first wife Ilze. Judy Marks (Chloë Sevigny) who published her own autobiography stood by Marks, even when they were extradited from their final haven in Mallorca. Sevigny is effective in a largely under written part. Their first seduction scene is fun but Sevigny’s brit accept needs help.
Crispin Glover, in a heavy hippy beard, plays Mark’s disloyal wild-card partner California drug king Ernie Combs. An old oxford pal Hamilton McMillan (Christian McKay) lures Marks into working for the Secret Service, reporting on his IRA contacts. For a while, Marks’ Mi5 connection ( “We don’t use that Name” advises McMillan) grants Marks Carte blanche to operate above the law. His free ride helps him amass a series of interlocking international businesses. ( Ah, the pre 911 world!). Ken Russell has a cameo in a Customs sequence.
Survivor Marks avoids grassing on most of his buddies by “Appearing to cooperate”, a tactic that serves him well over and over again in court. He manages to side step charges repeatedly until he is set up in Mallorca.b Spain’s sublime Luis Tosar plays Lovato, who brings him in.
Marks is a doting family man, but even this quality fails to make us care about him. The adrenaline junky who puts his thrills first is neither hero nor antihero. This is the film’s flaw, despite Rhys Ifans’s droll, ingratiating performance.
In trying to transfer Marks’ plot-laden life to script form, Rose lost track of the things that make us identify with the character. We do care about bad boys; think Cagney in his Warners films of the 30’s or Vincent Cassel’s perf in Jean-François Richet’s two part-er crime bio-pic “Mesrines.”
The films is book-ended by scenes of Marks’ Comedy act. “Are there any plainclothes policemen in the crowd tonight?” asks aging Marks in one. “NO? Good!” he jokes.
Cinematography by Bernard Rose, production design by Max Gottlieb, art direction by Sonia Aranzabal and Tim Dickel, costumes Caroline Harris are tops. Ditto the clever green screen visual effects (by Chris Bentley and team) that place Marks in the past. A relatively calm score by Phillip Glass is another plus. If only the script were better. Produced by Luc Roeg (son of Nic Roeg).