Synopsis – A “tax collector” working for a local crime lord finds his family’s safety compromised when the rival of his boss shows up in L.A. and upends the business.
My Take – Personally I have savored filmmaker David Ayer‘s work since he shot to fame for his writing duties on Training Day (2001), The Fast and the Furious (2001) and S.W.A.T. (2003), and even relished upon his directorial offerings like Harsh Times (2005), Street Kings (2008), End of Watch (2012) and Fury (2014), mainly due to his rare ability to infuse humanity into machismo conventions.
Though the director’s recent run at blockbusters in the form of the Arnold Schwarzenegger led Sabotage (2014), Suicide Squad (2016) and Bright (2017) have been criticized, as a fan I found my own way to appreciate them. Hence it made sense, that in order to find his supposed lost footing, he decided to return to his gritty stylized roots in the form of a smaller scaled crime drama stomping ground, he built a career upon.
With a promising trailer that hinted at a twist on the buddy cop formula, I think nobody expected this confusingly 95 minutes long film was also going to turn out to be filmmaker David Ayer‘s worst offering yet.
Yes, the script is a borderline mess, which essentially works like standard telenovela with added blatant in-your-face violence that is shockingly uninspired, and supported by jarring editing that makes the experience even more strenuous than it need to be. For some reason, director Ayer also relies way too much on foreshadowing, throwing in hints and paradoxes about characters we never care about.
Then there is the controversy regarding the casting of Shia LaBeouf. Back in 2018 when the film was being shot, the film gained traction as LaBeouf got his chest and stomach permanently tattooed for this role. Unfortunately for him, he’s buttoned-up for 98% of his scenes, and covered in blood for the others.
But the question remains, why he is even in this film in the first place, and why his role couldn’t have gone to a Latin actor, like the majority of the cast. Though director Ayer has attempted to defend the casting by saying Shia’s character is a white boy who grew up in the hood like him, it still is jarring to see him in the middle of this diverse cast, and his solid supporting performance doesn’t make up for the much larger issues of the film.
The story follows David (Bobby Soto), who along with Creeper (Shia LaBeouf), his more aggressive partner, works as the tax collector for a crime lord mysteriously named The Wizard (Jimmy Smits). Their only job is to go around the city of Los Angeles collecting protection money from various gang members, drug dealers, and generally shady business people. If they don’t have the money ready, then predictably, things get violent.
However, things take an unexpected turn when Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin), a particularly nasty former rival of The Wizard, comes back to town, who now backed by Mexican cartels, and a gorgeous yet deadly right-hand woman Gata (Cheyenne Rae Hernandez), is hell bent on carving out his own empire, hereby putting everything David cared of, including his loving kids and doting wife, Alexis (Cinthya Carmona) in danger.
The idea that there are tooled up accountants scraping the criminal proceeds sounds like fun but that premise is never explored and combine that with a script that abandons a compelling structure for more standard B-film action plotting, by the lamentable third act, the film has descended into a B-film with the usual clichéd righteous retribution nonsense.
While the war is fought, with bullets, bombs a bit of voodoo, and includes all sorts of interesting participants, the spotlight remains on David who, despite a few good intentions, is a hard person to root for. Mainly as he taxes bad guys and uses Creeper to handle the violence so he can claim to be a doting father and husband. He is not arrogant but the idea he can keep his two worlds separate seems naive and even offensive. The Michael Corleone angle is ambitious for a modest run-time cluttered with clichés, especially handled without a shred of irony. He doesn’t earn the hand-wringing when Karma catches up with him.
The biggest problem here is Ayer’s screenplay is stuck in a murky middle ground between grounded crime-drama and low-rent actioner, often dancing between the two tonalities without much grace. This confused delivery significantly hinders any dramatic potential, as the script crafts simplistic, one-note caricatures that feel ill-fitted in its contemporary landscape with the character of Conejo especially feeling like he has been thrown in from another film, considering the ritual scene where he’s dowsed in the blood of human sacrifice.
Also the violence here is as gratuitous as it gets, with director Ayer dreaming up some sickening kills that only stand to shock audiences. Both sides turn to all-out bloodshed under the simplistic guise of family and honor, embracing archaic ideas without an ounce of self-awareness.
But for all the film’s misgivings, director Ayer continues to display assured technical craftsmanship as he knows how to shoot the sun drenched streets of L.A. which is filled with unnerving dangers and is built by sense of life and uncertainty. His world-building is aided by core lead characters. Creeper is used as the darker counterweight to the pious and good-hearted David, which is probably why Creeper is more fun. The scenes earlier in the film where the two of them drive around L.A., talking about God, meditation and dieting between violent encounters are the best parts of the film.
However, while the supporting cast commits to what should be an entertaining, bloody crime drama, David Soto sleepily meanders through the proceedings, giving one of the weakest lead character performances of the year. Soto needed to bring his performance to an even higher level of desperate intensity, but he, and the film, just go through the motions instead.
Perhaps the film’s biggest misstep was to derive the spotlight from Shia LaBeouf. While response to his performance will likely be divisive, I could not help but be drawn into his magnetic screen presence. LaBeouf is the most interesting ingredient the film offers because his performance is so unpredictable. His twitchy and unique intensity is nicely calibrated here, and is perfectly suited for an extremely violent, godless psychopath affectionately called Creeper. While it won’t go down as the performer’s most astounding work, but giving credit where it’s due, LaBeouf turns in solid work even though, despite what the marketing would tell you, he’s a supporting character.
In other roles, Cinthya Carmona, Jose “Conejo” Martin, Cheyenne Rae Hernandez, Elpidia Carrillo, Cle Sloan, Lana Parilla, Jimmy Smits, and George Lopez, manage to salvage whatever they can. On the whole, ‘The Tax Collector’ is a clunky mess of a film that is fixated on shallow style and noise over substance.
Directed – David Ayer
Rated – NR
Run Time – 95 minutes