Operation Odessa is as rollicking a documentary about heavy criminals as you get. Its trio of subjects, Ludwig “Tarzan” Fainberg, Juan Almeida and Nelson “Tony” Yester, are enormously entertaining and frequently very funny as they tell their remarkable story, which sounds, literally, like the set-up to a joke: A Russian strip-club owner, a black market car dealer and a drug-dealing killer try to sell a Russian military submarine to a Columbian drug cartel…
The story is one of those jaw-dropping, head-spinning tales that could only have emerged from Miami in the 80s-90s, when it seemed, essentially, lawless. Tarzan’s club, Porky’s (!), was a local hang for Russian gangsters; naturally, as they made dough, they wanted to spend it on all sorts of silly cars, which Almeida furnished; along the way they met Tony, who hooked them up with the Columbians, with whom they made deals: first for cars, then helicopters, and then, ambitiously… a Russian navy submarine.
These guys are so utterly perfect in their roles, you’d swear the whole thing was a fake (it’s not). Tarzan couldn’t be more Russian, sitting fatly, bearded, smoking, with a boyish gleam in his eye; Almeida is smooth, relentlessly charming, born to sell a lump of coal to a chimneysweep; and Tony is an infinite mirror of Tony Montana from Scarface, a film this one so casually references that it assumes you’ve seen it. Like Al Pacino’s Tony Montana, Tony Yester came to Miami from Cuba in the Mariel boatlift in 1980, very quickly figured out that drugs and violence were the way to get rich in America, and proceeded to deal and kill. Like Pacino’s Montana, he swears constantly, dresses sharp, and lets his more violent utterances trail off with a sly, scary smile. He is interviewed on a plane “somewhere in Africa,” a constant fugitive from the law and the Columbians for decades. It is impossible to figure whether he inspired Montana or Montana him, because they both created each other, and echo each other in a perpetual loop.
This is wild stuff. If you love the ‘Cocaine Cowboy’ oeuvre you’ll hoover this up. No doubt it will get re-made, as a scripted feature, any minute. See the real deal first; there’s no way any actors can make these guys more colourful.