Operation Odessa is such an unbelievably wild, entertaining documentary that the dullness of its title is a borderline crime against itself.
This is a movie (premiering on Showtime March 31) whose primary subject is a Russian gangster named Tarzan! Who owned a Miami strip club named after his favorite film, Porkys! And with his close cohortsa Miami playboy and a Cuban drug trafficker with close ties to Pablo Escobar, who remains to this day an international fugitivethis sleazy crook tried to buy a military submarine from the Russians on behalf of Colombias Cali drug cartel! With a premise like that, Tiller Russells non-fiction crowd-pleaser deserves a moniker far more colorful than its current one, which comes from the name of the governments operation to catch these high-flying madmen. Grand Theft Submarine, perhaps?
Russells story wastes no time getting to its insanity. In an introductory interview clip, Ludwig Fainberg, aka Tarzana stout Russian man with a well-kept goatee and a smile that radiates equal pride and disbelief at his own behaviorrecalls a phone conversation with one of his contacts about the aforementioned purchase, which ended with the question, Do we want the submarine with missiles, or without missiles? Cue the Miami Vice-ish credit sequence of a cigarette boat racing across the water set to the sounds of Scorpions Winds of Change, replete with starring and introducing designations for its cast of outrageous characters. Far from stolid non-fiction terrain, were in Cocaine Cowboys territory here: a stylish world of gleeful bad guys boasting about their very bad behavior for our shocked amusement.
As we soon learn, Tarzan immigrated to Brighten Beach, Brooklyn, in 1980, and immediately decided that the best way to take advantage of this wondrous land of opportunity was to become an enforcer for New Yorks Gambino crime family. His specialty, as he explains with charming self-satisfaction, was arson, although the occasional beating or two wasnt out of the question if circumstances demanded it. We were a little bit rough, he says of his work, which he likened to an illegal collection agency. Alas, that career was short-lived, as the murder of his partner told him it was time for a change of scenery. A plane ticket later, and he was in Miami, which U.S. Attorney Dick Gregorie and U.S. Marshall Mike McShane describe as a drug-infested modern-day Casablanca.
In his new home, Tarzan set about establishing the aforementioned gentlemens club named after Bob Clarks 1981 sex comedywhich speaks volumes about both his tastes, as well as his subtlety. It was a ritzy establishment whose astounding fortunes were predicated, at least in part, on its then-novel idea of having porn stars come in to do featured showssuch as one (recounted by Porkys former manager, Fat Tony Galeota) that involved customers paying $5 each to drive dildos attached to remote-controlled cars into the performers crotch. He classed the place up, says Fat Tony. Before long, Tarzan was the go-to guy for Russian mobsters, and his fortunes skyrocketed further thanks to his new friendship with exotic cars wheeler-dealer Juan Almeida.
And he was introduced to him by none other than Vanilla Ice.
Thats right: it was the Ice Ice Baby rapper who first facilitated Tarzans meeting with Almeida, at the celebrity-filled Fort Apache Marina where the latter did much of his business selling boats, Ferraris, and other expensive goods to the rich and powerful (and the cartels). The two were instant friends. And when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1990, they saw a chance to make an absolute killing. On a trip to Moscow, Almeida discovered that law and order had disappeared from the country, and everythingliterally, everythingwas for sale. It was just a complete free-for-all, he remembers, with a look that says he still cant quite comprehend the golden goose that landed in his lap.
In their newly-recorded interviews, Tarzan and Almeida prove both easygoing and uninhibited, which goes hand-in-hand with director Russells fast and fleet aestheticsfull of split screens, archival photos and movies (including government video and wiretap audio), propulsive soundtrack tunes, and flashy montages to introduce each new locale. Though this duo might be capable of shouldering an entire documentary themselves, theyre soon joined by Nelson Tony Yester. A man deeply embedded with Escobars Medelln cartel, Tony had a notorious reputation as a really bad guyhe was once caught with 41 passports, and featured on his own 1999 episode of Americas Most Wantedand thats confirmed by his confession, in a 1992 surveillance recording, that he doesnt like to kill, but sometimes it has to happen because thats how it works.
Despite Tarzan and Almeidas stated conviction that Tony would never agree to participate in Operation Odessa, thats precisely what he does, speaking to Russell in a jet and an airport hanger in an undisclosed location. His origin story is basically the real-life version of Scarface, and since he found Tarzan and Almeida to be his kindred spirits, they naturally all began working together. Their partnership was consummated with a deal to acquire two enormous Russian Kamov helicopters, whose twin rotors allowed them to carry enormous payloadsperfect for drug kingpins in need of moving tons of cocaine to and from jungle manufacturing plants. The problem wasnt buying the choppers, however, but getting them out of St. Petersburgan obstacle that eventually required Almeida to pose as Escobar to a bunch of lethal Russian gangsters.
That successful deal made the trio the talk of Colombia, and led to their subsequent plan to purchase a submarine from the Russians. The specifics of that attempted transaction, and the governments attempts to shut down the crews entrepreneurial activities, is a saga that gets progressively crazier as it goes along, and Russell treats it as an extended tall tale designed to provoke incredulous laughswhich it does in spades. Operation Odessa is a brash account of cartoonishly horrible people trying to get away with murder (sometimes literally), and reveling in discussions about their own unlawful adventures.
Regardless of the (wholly reasonable) comments of its law enforcement talking heads, Operation Odessa is devoid of any real critical perspective, because the wickedness of Tarzan, Almeida and Tony speaks for itself. And its their obvious over-the-top immorality, in turn, that makes them such fascinating and funny desperados, and what renders Operation Odessa such a disreputable blastits dull title notwithstanding.