In Tehran, getting caught with 30 grams of illegal drugs carries the same sentence as being busted with 50 kilos. Either way, perps face the death penalty — which means the dealers might as well get ambitious. And so they have, driving up the rates of Iranian drug abuse from roughly one million addicts to somewhere in the ballpark of 6.5 million. Still, if it weren’t for such draconian punishments — and the dedication of the Anti-Narcotics Police Task Force who enforce them — the number would be much higher, which explains the title of director Saeed Roustaee’s “Just 6.5,” a riveting, ripped-from-reality thriller that delivers a searing look at a serious problem.
A tense blow-by-blow account of a major bust — from a spectacular back-alley raid through to its grim conclusion at the gallows, where a big-fish supplier uses every ploy to escape execution — “Just 6.5” is part adrenaline-shot action movie and part detail-obsessed bureaucratic procedural. Like Iranian master Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”), Roustaee blends the best of Eastern and Western cinematic traditions. The result — a stunning Iranian-style riff on “The French Connection” — is a run-and-gun, Hollywood-caliber cop movie grounded by a clear-eyed assessment of how Tehran’s system works, and all the ways in which it doesn’t.
For “A Separation” admirers, the film features the welcome return of a familiar face: Leading man Payman Maadi plays the chief detective on the case, Samad, first glimpsed amid the excitement of a whirlwind opening scene. Samad’s ostensibly in charge, although the operation has a frightening unpredictability to it as his team swarms a site known for drug-related activity with all the gusto of the “Zero Dark Thirty” finale. At first, the place appears to be deserted, until Samad’s right-hand man, Hamid (Houman Kiai), spots the shadow of a figure creeping along the roof and gives chase.
It’s a thrilling, wrenched-by-the-collar sequence and one that ends with a twist: The cops don’t see what becomes of their prey, but we do, and it’s a horrible way to go. For all they know, the suspect got away, and it’s a real headache for them that the only thing they have to show for their trouble is the bag of white powder the guy tried to throw out during the pursuit. Samad asks Hamid to write up the report. The team leader’s already under scrutiny in another case (one in which the police misplaced 50 grams confiscated from a small-time dope peddler) and figures it’s better if someone else takes accountability for this screw-up.
Roustaee makes it clear from this early scene that reports are meant to make the police accountable for their actions, but they are perhaps the least reliable aspect of the entire process. Anyone can lie, and while the film presents Samad and Hamid as model cops, they’re far from flawless. Who’s to say that the detectives didn’t plant the drugs themselves?
The system is fraught with distrust — and reasonably so, considering how rampant corruption appears to be. The movie can’t come right out and say it, but between the lines of its borderline jingoistic celebration of institutional effectiveness (an approach all but prescribed by notoriously tough Iranian censors) is a deeply cynical critique of same. Roustaee’s depiction feels tough but fair, displaying a strange mix of exasperation and pride that makes you wonder whether U.S. drug enforcement operations are any cleaner, and why American movies don’t scrutinize them more closely.
If “Just 6.5” were merely a propaganda tool, it seems unlikely the film would show its good guys in near-constant disagreement. The movie’s fast-paced to begin with, but it’s also dense with dialogue, nearly all of it delivered in heated argument. Early on, a clearly exasperated Samad tries to convey to his boss why he divorced and remarried his wife (the explanation’s not clear but concerns a troubling workplace paradox, wherein demands of the job caused the domestic split, whereas restrictions requiring that men be married in order to be promoted necessitated their reunion), then proceeds to badger Hamid, who’s almost single-mindedly focused on getting revenge on a drug boss responsible for the kidnap and death of his son.
A domino-like succession of early arrests and interrogations — including a raid on a low-level hustler that looks like a dead end until the drug-sniffing dogs arrive and uncover his ingenious hiding place — demonstrate how these quick-witted detectives negotiate on the fly, threatening tough sentences if the crooks don’t cough up fresh information on their suppliers. For nearly a year, Samad and his squad have been on the trail of the elusive Naser Khakzad (Navid Mohammadzadeh), finally tracking the bigshot down a few slow heartbeats shy of a successful suicide attempt.
The police find Naser passed out in his jacuzzi, which underscores the infuriating contrast between his posh lifestyle and that of his end-users — glimpsed when police descend on what looks like a massive hive of addicts junkies shooting up amid a heap of cement pipes, too many to process in the overcrowded prison. The authorities resuscitate Naser just in time, and he awakens handcuffed to a hospital bed — the infernal first step into the living hell that awaits as he’ll be made to face the consequences of his actions. Naser may be the film’s villain, but he’s every bit as complicated a character as the heroes responsible for his arrest (which explains why he, not Maadi, earned best actor honors at the Tokyo Film Festival for his remarkable caged-predator performance).
“Just 6.5” wouldn’t dare try to justify his actions, but it does show how Naser rationalizes them in his own mind, leveraging all that seemed unfair about his own life to explain why he’s ruining those of others. A more traditional drug-bust drama might end with the apprehension of such a major player, but this meatier treatment has yet to reach its juicy red center, following the characters through a flurry of depositions and court hearings. Naser feels no less powerful behind bars, attempting to bribe his way out, and even casting suspicion on the honest men who captured him. Though his fate is sealed as far as the film is concerned, the path to his inevitable execution proves not only unpredictable, but unexpectedly poignant. In a country with 6.5 million users, he’s just one of the men responsible, and unless the authorities can change the entire society’s way of thinking, there will be many others ready to take his place.