War on Drugs

Operation Odessa Turns '90s Drug War into a Black Comedy

The best part: It's a documentary.


'Operation Odessa'
'Operation Odessa,' Showtime

Operation Odessa. Showtime. Saturday, March 31, 9 p.m.

The Crossing. ABC. Monday, April 2, 10 p.m.

You can, if you wish, see the documentary Operation Odessa as a grand metaphor for the war on drugs. In it, the DEA spends an eternity chasing a klatch of narcotraffickers, burning through stacks of money and agent man-hours, blowing off countless years of prison time for convicted criminals in order to get them to work as informers against the group, and accumulating 15,000 hours of wiretapped conversations. End result: Nobody's in jail and there's no evidence that the flow of cocaine into the United States has decreased so much as an ounce.

Or you can ignore the political implications and just enjoy Operation Odessa as a madcap black comedy about three guys who are half-genius and half-oaf blundering in and out of harrowingly scary situations in a kind of post-modernist Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Director Tiller Russell has made well-regarded documentaries about police corruption and an all-felon baseball team, but the wildly entertaining Operation Odessa—which has been kicking around festivals for a few months before getting its first major exposure on Showtime—is clearly his masterpiece.

Its protagonists are led by a Russian mobster known as Tarzan, who left his job as a Gambino family enforcer after his partner called in sick one day with a bullet in his head. Tarzan prudently moved to Miami and invested his savings in a sleazy Miami strip club he called Porky's after his favorite movie.

"He classed the place up," recalls one employee. Among Tarzan's more genius innovations was a bit where a porn star lay on the stage with her legs open while customers paid $5 a shot to maneuver a dildo mounted on a remote-control toy car into her nether regions.

And yet, surprisingly, the club acquired a certain louche reputation; even Tarzan himself wouldn't enter it without two pistols concealed on his body. Eventually the clientele consisted mostly of Russian gangsters.

But some of Tarzan's other friends stopped by from time to time, among them a Miami classic-car dealer named Juan Almeida, whose off-the-books activities included mounting turbines in cigarette boats and helicopters, which not at all coincidentally allowed their drivers to outrace DEA vehicles. ("It's no secret that cocaine is cool," Almeida says by way of introducing himself in the documentary.)

Also along for the ride was Tony Yester, a pilot whose cargos mostly consisted of stacked bricks of cocaine and money headed for the laundry. A part-time Cuban spy with passports in 41 names, Yester sometimes amused himself by sending postcards from Havana to the U.S. Marshal's office in Miami with messages like, "I'm here at the beach, sipping a fucking mojito. When are you going to come down to pick me up?" Yester felt misunderstood by the cops. "Me, I never have enjoyed killing anybody. I just want a few dollars," a DEA surveillance tape caught him brooding. "But when somebody has to go, somebody has to go."

The three amigos were soon doing a variety of business with Colombian cocaine cartels. Their eventually took them to the post-breakup Soviet Union, where Tarzan coaxed a large load of military helicopters worth $10 million apiece out of the clueless ex-Marxists for $650,000 a pop.

But when the local Russian mafia kidnapped him and demanded its cut, Tarzan had to summon Almeida, who flew into Moscow posing as cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. The bedazzled Russians were soon regular customers, swapping their military equipment for cocaine. So when one of Tarzan's cartel acquaintances casually inquired if he knew where the Colombians could get their hands on a military submarine, he knew just who to call.

What Tarzan didn't know: a member of his mobster coterie back in Miami—a guy known as Cannibal after biting off a cop's nose while being arrested—had been turned by the DEA. The cops had found him languishing in a Bulgarian jail, toothless (the cautious Bulgarians, who valued their noses, had kicked all of Cannibal's teeth out before taking him into custody), and ready to deal. He had helped the DEA rig microphones all over a restaurant owned by Tarzan, and the cops knew his every move.

The insanely audacious plan to broker the $35 million submarine deal as the DEA looked on takes up the last half of Operation Odessa. The sheer brassy nuttiness of it eventually appalled even the gangsters themselves. When Tarzan called to say the Russians were willing to throw in a load of nuclear weapons into the deal for modest increase in price, Yester could only sputter, "You're out of your fucking mind!"

If trying to decide whether Operation Odessa is a serio-comic analysis of the war on drugs or a Keystone Kops documentary is tough, figuring out what ABC's The Crossing is trying to say about immigration is nearly impossible.

When 450 bodies wash up on an Oregon beach, most of them dead, the survivors identify themselves as immigrants—from the future, 180 years off. They've come from an America wracked by war and slaughter carried out by super-powered genetic mutants who call themselves the Apex. They escaped in a prototype time machine whose operators targeted it to deliver them to "the early 21st century—a better time, they told us." (And you thought nothing could be worse that Hillary vs. The Donald.)

When the new arrivals are promptly locked up at a secret camp, it seems a clear allusion to U.S. immigration policy, especially when the immigrants start making agonizingly heavy-handed speeches about how "everyone has rights here, no matter where they're from."

But then it turns out that the feds are not quite as mindlessly fascist as it first appeared; they're worried that some of the refugees might actually be moles, mutants posing as normal so they can pursue an unknown but doubtless sinister agenda. Hmm. Could those people who warn about ISIS lone wolves have a better argument than we think?

If The Crossing has too much ambiguity to be an effective political polemic, it's perhaps a bit overstuffed to make good television. There's local sheriff Jude Ellis (goofball comedian Steve Zahn of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies in an unusual dramatic role), a former Oakland cop hiding out in the sticks to recover from some unknown personal catastrophe. The loyalties of federal agent Emma Ren (Sandrine Holt, Homeland) seem uncertain, and refugee Reece (Natalie Martinez, Under the Dome) is definitely up to something.

Pilot episodes have to cover a lot of ground these days to grab an audience before the cancellation-happy network suits take them out back and shoot them. Whether that's The Crossing's problem and it will slow down and develop characters and coherent story lines, or whether it's just empty-headed blather, remain uncertain. Though I do look forward to the episode where the president explains how the citizens of 2185 are going to be forced to pay for a time-travel wall.