‘The Tax Collector’ Needs An Audit

by Warren Cantrell on August 6, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Down]

Opening digitally, VOD, and in select theaters August 7.

A sort of mixtape sampling of writer/director David Ayer’s ongoing L.A. cops and robbers obsession, The Tax Collector is just that: a cobbled together mess of almost-art that recycles interesting components of better work. The rehashed nature of the effort clouds its intentions, too, for the film can’t seem to settle on what it is about, or even whom. Ayer is just kind of throwing it all at the wall, here, offering text in the opening title card that reads, “love, honor, loyalty, family,” conceding, it seems, that its presentation of these themes are so unfocused that it would be easier to just toss them in the audience’s lap from the jump rather than work for it all via character development and thoughtful storytelling.

At its root, The Tax Collector at least has an interesting premise, and lives in a world worth exploring. David (Bobby Soto) is in the family collection business under his uncle, Louis (George Lopez), a sort of street boss for the incarcerated Wizard (Jimmy Smits). Even in jail, Wizard is still at the head of all criminal activity for a loosely defined (and not at all explained) network of Mexican gangs throughout Los Angeles. David and his muscle, Creeper (Shia LaBeouf), make daily pick-ups on behalf of Wizard, taking their boss’ cut in exchange for protection and permission to continue hustling.

The central conflict of the picture is the appearance of a Mexican cartel heavy, Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin), who has come north of the border to take over Wizard’s operations. By this point, Ayer’s script has set up his two leads well enough, with David as the primary, serving as the tenuous moral compass of a world where there are no good guys, only different levels of bad. David’s commitment to his wife, kids, uncle, and even Wizard paint him as an honorable man who does shady things to survive while Creeper is little more than a Kool-Aide-drinking sociopath whose only redeeming feature is that he’s on David’s side.

Yet this is where the film’s problems kick in, and holy shit, where to even begin with it all?

Characters – It’s difficult to care about what happens to any of these people, starting with David, who has all the charisma and relatability of an albatross. He’s supposed to be a God-fearing family man, which is all well and good, but there’s nothing particularly interesting about his family, or his connection to it. This is a bad guy hurting people for an even worse dude, and because he’s got kids he loves the audience is supposed to just jump on his side? Nah. Creeper, who is in no way sympathetic or relatable, is far more interesting, what with his fierce tribal loyalty and willingness to murder at the drop of a hat juxtaposed against his predilection for morning meditation and a keto diet lifestyle. Put simply, this movie chooses the wrong horse to follow, and The Tax Collector never recovers as a result.

Plot – The central conceit of this picture is tired and well explored (new bad guy comes into town to muscle out old bad guy, with soldiers forced to choose sides), but if it had at least stuck to its formula, it might have been worth its 90-minute runtime. Instead, Ayer’s script sprinkles in characters, B-plots, and a couple of third-act twists that bring absolutely nothing to the table, and add loose threads that are never tied up. David has an MMA hobby that is set up early on, and looks to pay off near the end, yet ultimately does little for the story. Huge stacks of cash numbering in the millions drift in and out of the story with little set-up and even less followup, and characters are established early on that just vanish or are dismissed casually despite an actual need for them in the narrative. On the macro level, there’s an attempt to tie David into a wider cultural framework of not just the Mexican cartel, but Los Angeles gang activity as a whole, yet it is so ham-fisted and shoddily introduced that the eventual payoffs are just south of laughable.

Cultural Insensitivity – The decision to cast LaBeouf as a Mexican gangster seems ridiculous on the face of things…and it turns out to be in practice as well. If there had been a line about how he was a Tom Hagen type that was adopted into this world, that might have at least made sense, but no such slack is given, here. It’s bad enough that minority communities (both Mexican and African American) in this film’s version of L.A. are wholly consumed by crime, Ayer couldn’t even bother to cast a Mexican in one of the two lead roles. It’s a bad look, and as interesting and almost fun as LaBeouf’s turn is in The Tax Collector, it’s a hurdle the film can’t clear.

And that’s too bad, because again, LaBeouf is actually kind of fun in this, and has interesting things to do and say. “Are we killing anyone today? I got my nice shoes on,” Creeper asks casually at one point, saying as much in this moment about these characters and their values as any pained title card serving the picture’s themes up in the first minute ever could hope to do. The world David and Creeper exist in is interesting enough without all of the cartoonish faux-action set pieces and amped up drama clumsily injected into the back half of The Tax Collector, which feels like it’s from a different movie (more specifically, End of Watch, Training Day, and the El Diablo parts of Suicide Squad). In a perfect world, the movie would have just stuck with David and Creeper and blown their world out, yet sadly, like taxes in real life, the good times only last so long before the bill comes due.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.

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