J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Operation Odessa: Like Miami Vice with Submarines


Next time you hear a demagogue inveigh against the so-called “militarization” of the police, ask yourself what sort of anti-submarine defenses your local PD has, because that is the sort of world we live in. It is an established fact the Cali Cartel has tried to purchase full military subs from the Russians on at least two occasions (that we know of). The second case we discovered through dumb luck, but the first attempted sale was broken up by some tenacious police work. Ludwig “Tarzan” Fainberg was one of the men brokering the sale. Somehow, he and his shady pals lived to tell the story in Tiller Russell’s documentary, Operation Odessa (trailer here), which premieres this Saturday on Showtime.

For a while, the Odessa-born Tarzan Fainberg worked for an Italian crime family in New York, but when things got too hot, he relocated to Florida, opening a strip club modeled on the fine establishment in the Porky’s movies. In terms of random pop culture references, Fainberg also became friendly with Vanilla Ice. More importantly, his club and subsequent Russian restaurant became hang-spots for every visiting Russian and Eastern European gangster. Soon he became their unofficial liaison to the South American cartels.

Fainberg formed fast friendships with Tony Yester, a former Cuban spy, and Juan Almeida, a supposed luxury car dealer. Technically, the three friends and co-conspirators were not drug traffickers, per se, but they facilitated the smuggling by brokering deals for heavy-duty twin-turbine Russian helicopters and the like. Russia was their K-Mart and everything was on Blue Light special—even including an old but still sea-worthy diesel submarine (available with or without armaments).

The story of Tarzan and his bros is so wild and colorful (and he is such a knucklehead), viewers will often lose sight of how terrifying this narco-kerfuffle really is, when you think about it soberly. There is a very real possibility one of the cartels is running a hard to detect Russian diesel sub, loaded up with cocaine—if we’re lucky. Obviously, this a real security concern for all police and Coast Guard vessels.

Regardless, the hard-partying Fainberg also waxes nostalgic for hedonistic Miami party scene. Subtlety is not his thing, which is just as well, considering he is the primary POV figure. However, Russell also managed to score on-cameras with Yester (whom Fainberg and Almeida were convinced would never agree) and the heavily disguised undercover who brought down their racket.

In terms of sheer style and energy, Operation Odessa (named for the inter-agency operation investigating Russian mob activity in South Florida) is one of the best true crime documentaries in years. It is impossible to be bored by the mayhem and skullduggery it documents. Russell also avoids making any political statements, which is definitely a plus. You could argue he comes perilously close to glamorizing Fainberg, but he also gives the law enforcement agents ample opportunity to have their say. It turns out, they are quite lively talking heads, as well.

This story is just crazy—and so are these people. It is rather amazing that so many of them are still walking around, but don’t count on them making the ten-year Operation Odessa reunion party. Highly recommended for fans of Billy Corben’s docs (such as Square Grouper), Operation Odessa premieres this Saturday (3/31) on Showtime.

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