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SXSW Review: 'Operation Odessa' Answers the Age-Old Riddle About Whether It's Possible to Buy a Nuclear Submarine

By Seth Freilich | Film | March 12, 2018 |

By Seth Freilich | Film | March 12, 2018 |


There isn’t much you need to know about Operation Odessa. What if I tell you that the lead character, who is truly a character, is a Russian gangster who used to work as an enforcer for the Gambino mob in NY and then moved to Miami to open a strip club? Not enough? What if I tell you that he named his strip club after his favorite movie?


Not enough? What if I tell you his name?


One last nugget — Tarzan is introduced to one of the other central characters, a Miami “businessman” with Columbia connections, by Vanilla Ice.

Come on, you’re in, right! This is one of those documentaries that you have to be a little careful watching because the talking heads are great and wildly entertaining, but you have to remember that these are bad dudes. Tarzan is hilarious. But he’s a bad dude. Juan, the Miami “businessman,” is a bad dude. And international fugitive “Tony,” a Cuban drug trafficker, is a super bad dude (“dangerous, violent and unforgiving”). We only learn some of the bad things these guys did, but the existence of “Operation Odessa” itself shows you what we’re dealing with here. That was the name of a joint task force that was put together in the ’80s to track Russian criminal activity in South Florida. We’re talking immigration, customs, the FBI, the DEA. You’re on all their radar, you’re not good people.

So quotes like this are very entertaining: “I always wanted to know, what is the difference between Agent and Special Agent? Why he special? …Why he better than me? …I didn’t tell him I’m a Special Tarzan, I just a regular Tarzan.” But the viewer has to remember that regular Tarzan is a bad dude, and we’re all way too easy to ignore the brutal reality of criminals like this when their on-camera persona is so engaging.

But man alive, Tarzan, Juan, and Tony concocted one hell of a scheme in the ’90s. First, they purchased two military helicopters for Pablo Escobar — which includes one of them actually going to a volatile meeting/kidnap negotiation in Russia pretending to be Pablo. This made them wildly famous in the criminal underworld for pulling this off, so they decided to up the ante by going after a $35 million dollar submarine, which could deliver “the biggest reserve of blow in the fucking world.” This involves meeting with Russian generals and admirals (“there was so many fucking stars there, I thought I was looking in the sky”), to determining whether not they wanted munitions (“we don’t want no fucking bombs!”), Russian saunas, and, on the other side of things, 15,000 hours of wiretaps. Because, lest you forget, “this is a big deal — this isn’t buying a used car.”

The documentary itself is well made, top to bottom. They basically sat down with almost everyone you would want to hear from on both the criminal and investigatory side. At a crisp 90 minutes, that pacing keeps moving forward, giving you enough details to understand who everyone is and everything that’s going on, without getting lost going down sidetracks that a story like this often has. And while it paints the criminals positively simply by the nature of how entertaining they are on screen - “when you get ten million dollars, one of the things you gonna find out is that it looks like ten million dollars, it’s a lot of paper, is a lot of fucking papers” - it never lets you forget who and what they really are.

Check it out for yourself when it premieres on Showtime on March 31.

Operation Odessa had its world premiere at the 2018 South by Southwest Conference.

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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Header Image Source: Showtime via screenshot