Way back—like, way, way, way back, when the ’80s were becoming the ’90s and the bad guys were Colombian and in some cases, for whatever reason, still also Russian, and you had to be the worst DEA agent ever if you couldn’t make a collar in Miami—there was an émigré Russian Jew who called himself “Tarzan.” Tarzan started American life in Brooklyn, where he found bountiful work as an arson-oriented enforcer for the Gambino family. (“We called it ‘Jewish Lightning,’” Tarzan says, slightly sheepishly, to the camera. “Basically, we broke stuff. We broke furniture. We set fires. The fire department did the rest—they didn’t give a shit!”) He then became a super class act strip club owner in his spiritual home: Miami, Fla. There, he met a grafter, or dealer, or I’m not sure what you call marina owner Juan Almeida. (Tarzan: “I love the guy! Loved him immediately!” Juan: “He was weird. I thought… Tarzan? Where’s Jane?”) Having been introduced at Tarzan’s ultra-classy establishment, Porky’s, and by Vanilla Ice, no less, the two became entangled in a little funny business with the government.
Showtime would like to take you back—way, way back—to when they Tore Down That Wall and the Soviet Union collapsed and Mikhail Gorbachev was booted from his butt-dent in the Kremlin and an entire unbelievably vast amalgam nation went into freefall and, as Juan Almeida put it, “Everything [was] for sale.” Their documentary Operation Odessa tracks Tarzan, Almeida, and a Cuban “businessman” (spy) named Tony Yestor as they maybe possibly attempt to buy a Russian military submarine and sell it to the Cali cartel for $35 million. A shadowy thug named Grisha spies on Tarzan for the DEA in exchange for being sprung from a Bulgarian prison, Yestor goes rogue and hits the Colombians for a very large down payment and disappears, Juan and Tarzan get picked up by the DEA because Tarzan’s clueless that his phones are tapped and that he has left pictures of himself all over his desk standing with an admiral on a Russian military base with a huge-ass submarine behind them so the Colombians would know they were serious and-yes, I know, it sounds like something straight out of Hollywood. The kind of improbable heist caper where you walk out shaking your head and saying, “Who green-lit that?”
Tarzan, Almeida and Yestor all talk to the filmmakers, live, in person and on camera (“No, he’d never talk to you,” Juan and Tarzan both say when asked about Yestor, at which we cut to Yestor doing exactly that). The fact that they got these guys to speak so openly about their schemes is pretty amazing; the production’s very, very slick, with a lively soundtrack and great split-screens. The storytelling is slightly scattered, but it’s a remarkable story, and Tarzan’s an oddly affable protagonist. A heavyset, bumbling guy whose American Dream was simply to get as rich as possible by whatever means, he speaks with an air of incredulousness that he’s gotten away with any of the stuff that happened (a particularly hilarious anecdote involves a meeting with Russian mobsters in which he has Juan Almeida actually impersonate Pablo Escobar—the two did bear a passing resemblance—to intimidate and give credibility with the Russians. Oh: Yes, it worked. Apparently you really could do anything in Moscow in the early ’90s.
Even though the story of Tarzan, Juan Almeida and Tony Yestor made headlines worldwide around 1995, I’ll refrain from spoilers and just note that, clearly, all of them are alive and able to talk to a film crew at length. It’s a pretty engaging piece of filmmaking, and where Showtime’s last docu-paean to the drug wars, The Trade, left me feeling infuriated, Operation Odessa is strangely… funny. I’m still trying to work out why. These guys should not be likable. They’re goons. Greedy, parasitic and none too bright, they aren’t romantic antiheroes or revolutionaries sticking it to the corrupt system—they’re just arrogant, and rather stupid, criminals.
And yet I predict they will crack you up. I don’t think Tarzan’s a guy I’d especially want to sit though dinner with, but for the space of a documentary he was perfectly decent company.
Operation Odessa is not filmed in the gritty Cops style that was used in The Trade and it also covers an incident that happened 20 years ago and, other than the fact that Yestor remains an international fugitive, it’s in the past. Maybe that accounts for the more lighthearted style, but whatever the case, director Tiller Russell made good choices here. Operation Odessa observes its subjects from a two-decade remove and uses that stance to play up how flat-out crazy the story actually is. It handles its subject matter with a little bit of irony, pacing that plays up the essential absurdity of the situation, and I applaud it for that.
Because it is, in fact, a crazy story.
Operation Odessa premieres Saturday, March 31 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.