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, Porky’s! And with his close cohorts—a Miami playboy and a Cuban drug trafficker with close ties to Pablo Escobar, who remains to this day an international fugitive—this sleazy crook tried to buy a military submarine from the Russians on behalf of Colombia’s Cali drug cartel! With a premise like that, Tiller Russell’s non-fiction crowd-pleaser deserves a moniker far more colorful than its current one, which comes from the name of the government’s operation to catch these high-flying madmen. Grand Theft Submarine, perhaps?
Russell’s story wastes no time getting to its insanity. In an introductory interview clip, Ludwig Fainberg, aka Tarzan—a stout Russian man with a well-kept goatee and a smile that radiates equal pride and disbelief at his own behavior—recalls 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, we’re 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 York’s Gambino crime family. His specialty, as he explains with charming self-satisfaction, was arson, although the occasional beating or two wasn’t 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 gentlemen’s club named after Bob Clark’s 1981 sex comedy—which 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 shows—such as one (recounted by Porky’s former manager, “Fat Tony” Galeota) that involved customers paying $5 each to drive dildos attached to remote-controlled cars into the performer’s 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.
That’s right: it was the “Ice Ice Baby” rapper who first facilitated Tarzan’s 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 everything—literally, everything—was for sale. “It was just a complete free-for-all,” he remembers, with a look that says he still can’t 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 Russell’s fast and fleet aesthetics—full 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, they’re soon joined by Nelson “Tony” Yester. A man deeply embedded with Escobar’s Medellín cartel, Tony had a notorious reputation as “a really bad guy”—he was once caught with 41 passports, and featured on his own 1999 episode of America’s Most Wanted—and that’s confirmed by his confession, in a 1992 surveillance recording, that he doesn’t like to kill, but sometimes it has to happen because “that’s how it works.”
Despite Tarzan and Almeida’s stated conviction that Tony would never agree to participate in Operation Odessa, that’s 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 payloads—perfect for drug kingpins in need of moving tons of cocaine to and from jungle manufacturing plants. The problem wasn’t buying the choppers, however, but getting them out of St. Petersburg—an 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 government’s attempts to shut down the crew’s 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 laughs—which 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 it’s their obvious over-the-top immorality, in turn, that makes them such fascinating and funny desperados, and what renders Operation Odessa such a disreputable blast—its dull title notwithstanding.