Operation Odessa

2018 | Unrated (R equivalent for profanity and nudity) | Documentary | directed by Tiller Russell | 1hr 35mins |

At the beginning of Operation Odessa, a Miami strip club owner named Tarzan winds up on the phone trying to get a Russian military submarine for his Columbian drug lord client. It turns out to be so easy that the Russian on the phone comes back and asks if he wants it with missiles or without like he’s taking a fast food order at a drive-in. The centerpiece of Operation Odessa which finds Tarzan in a Moscow sauna being offered nuclear weapons for his Cuban spy business partner, is absolutely insane. It’s the kind of bit of little-known historical trivia that might make it into a clever anecdote in an Aaron Sorkin script. Director Tiller Russell, however, is tasked with padding it out into a feature length documentary and the story gets stretched of it’s charm.

The story centers around Russian mobster Ludwig Fainberg aka Tarzan and his partner, Juan, as Tarzan’s bottomless ambition runs him headlong from one large-scale money-making scheme to the next. He sets up a strip club in Miami named after the film Porkey’s, runs drugs and people through Columbia. His reputation for being able to procure anything for his clients leads him to a client wanting said Russian submarine. Every word of this story is true, we hear some pretty funny wire-tapped phone calls with Tarzan on the line shocked at the ease that he can procure these things and see a spy try to bust him in a hidden-camera meeting while Tarzan recognizes the hotel clock from a surveillance shop.

It also feels familiar. It doesn’t help that a few weeks ago I saw Tom Cruise running drugs to Nicaragua in American Made. This feels like the same cocaine-fueled American dream story we’ve been obsessed with since Scarface. Watching this movie go flat before my eyes it seemed surprising that a story with all these wild ingredients can possibly be so dull. A movie that revolves around global weapons trafficking. A movie that involves Vanilla Ice and that unironically works in “Ice Ice Baby” over the credits. A first thought is that it has to do with how this story is told. It’s told exclusively by criminals and, well, sleezeballs. Sleezeballs who tell this story like they know how outrageous it is. The smirking quality of someone who laughs at their own jokes and deflates them.

A great movie doesn’t need to have likable characters, even when they’re real life storytellers. What Odessa could really use, to really nail the craziness of the situation, is a straight man or two. Where is the befuddled FBI agent who can’t get his head around how all this happened? Or the double agent who chased around Tarzan but never quite caught him? Everyone here is in the story and without that straight man tether it back to reality, it all just bounces around in it’s own echo chamber. The film feels long at barely 90 minutes, burying it’s fun parts under heaps of cliché drug-running tales.

 

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