Venice Sala: Just 6.5 Review

Venice Sala: Just 6.5 Review

Just 6.5 – which has been a huge hit at the Iranian box office – starts off as a promising police procedural before changing tack to deliver a thoughtful and compelling meditation on the country’s escalating drugs problem. It focusses on the cops that try to keep a lid on the epidemic, as well as its myriad victims, and the dealers and traffickers seeking to profit from the misery of it all.

The impressive thing is that the film (named for the reported 6.5 million addicts in Iran) never feels like it’s trying to be preachy or “issues led” – it’s a tightly-plotted, hard-hitting piece of work that succeeds as an action movie every bit as much as it does a character study or heavyweight drama. At times, the interplay between the film’s two main characters – cop Samad (A Separation’s Payman Maadi) and drugs kingpin Naser Khakzad (Navid Mohammadzadeh) – even reminded me of Pacino and De Niro squaring off in Michael Mann’s Heat. On opposite sides of the law, these are charismatic, complicated, world-weary men, both riddled with contradictions and self-justifications. Every time Maadi and Mohammadzadeh are onscreen together, you feel a crackle of electricity, and there's such easy chemistry between the pair, the fact they were both in Just 6.5 director Saeed Roustayi's first film, Life+1Day, comes as no surprise.

Initially, the film is all about Samad – he leads Tehran’s narcotics squad and is eyeing a promotion. His team is trying to track down slippery drug trafficker Khakzad but keeps coming up empty-handed. Khakzad is built up as a thoroughly nasty piece of work, even thought responsible for the death of the son of one of Samad’s police colleagues. You expect the rest of the film to play out as some kind of cat-and-mouse affair, with Khakzad a shadowy Keyser Söze figure staying just out of reach, until the provision of a suitably thrilling, high-octane conclusion.

Instead, Roustayi does something rather unexpected – Samad and his men catch Khakzad before the film’s first hour is out and the spotlight then shifts onto the criminal as he scrambles to secure his release. Iran hangs drug dealers, and although Khakzad believes he’s too rich and well connected to ever face such a fate, that thought lingers in the air and refuses to go away. Surprisingly, even though we know this man’s business has caused the deaths of many people, we are invited to sympathise with him and, god help us, we do.

In fact, despite his blatant attempts to bribe Samad and a propensity to lie through his teeth, you are nevertheless charmed by him. A good deal of that comes direct from Mohammadzadeh, who is terrific throughout, but Roustayi's writing is similarly impressive, humanising someone who, in lesser hands, would be a thuggish caricature.

All that said, the film’s best scene isn’t one of the frequent back-and-forths between cop and trafficker but a visual set-piece. It comes early on when, in a bid to procure information about his quarry, Samad leads a huge raid on a shanty town full of crack and heroin addicts. The town’s wretched, dispossessed residents have mostly taken shelter in huge concrete pipes (presumably left over from some building project or other), which makes the place resemble a giant beehive. It’s a highly impressive sequence helped in no small part by the expert deployment of tracking shots and a grittily convincing setting.

There’s a vein of black comedy that runs through Just 6.5. Roustayi (a Tehran-born 30-year-old helming only his second feature) paints a picture of a society that exists in a permanent state of paranoia. Knowing the awful punishment, police officers are terrified of being implicated in drugs-related crime and yet Samad and his colleague, Hamid (Houman Kiai), both come under suspicion – despite the flimsiest of evidence – during the course of the film. It leads to amusingly farcical scenes where one, then the other, is detained in handcuffs. There’s also a running gag which sees more and more male addicts crammed, like sardines, into a holding cell, to the point where you begin to wonder if the room has TARDIS-like properties.

Just 6.5 might contain big themes and performances but there are small, seemingly incidental moments, worth treasuring too. I loved how, at the beginning of one scene, ceiling fans are made to sound every bit as ominous as approaching helicopters, and there's a nicely-worked callback in which a child's voice on an answer-phone message early on is later referenced in the movie's most sentimental and heart-breaking sequence.

Ultimately, Just 6.5 is a film about impotence. Despite all the arrests, rough treatment and executions, Tehran's police have more chance of turning back the tide than they do the city's drug epidemic, while Khakzad comes to realise that for all his supposed wealth and influence, the iron hand of Iranian justice is an extremely difficult one to slip out of.

Overall

Iranian writer/director Roustayi's sophomore film is utterly compelling. A confident and audacious filmmaker, I suspect we will be hearing a lot more from him.

8

out of 10

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