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Writer and director David Ayer, the creator and writer of “Training Day” not only helped Denzel Washington win his second Oscar. But it put Ayer on the map as writer and director of slick and gritty crime thrillers that all focus on law enforcement and street gangs in South Los Angeles. David Ayer is back and taking to a smaller scale production with “The Tax Collector”. It’s another South L.A. crime tale that is as close as any of us are going to get to see South L.A. onscreen. Ayer has done so many of these gangland movies he’s got it down to a science. Which is unfortunate because he just ends up taking us down a familiar blood soaked road of drugs, money, night clubs, shoot-outs, tragedy and gang rivalries. Starring newcomer Bobby Soto and Shia LaBeouf who has gained more attention than the movie itself, for going full method by enduring a real entire chest tattoo for his character. LaBeouf was also faced with controversy towards his character deeming that it was a racist caricature; of LaBeouf who is Jewish playing a Latino. “The Tax Collector” is an underachieving, exceedingly violent urban gangster film with the simplest of simple storylines that seems like a particularly short-sighted film that’s just a blend of crime movie clichés. It’s just another day and another same old David Ayer movie.
David Ayer’s big break came in 2001 as the screenwriter of the box office sensation “The Fast & The Furious”. That same year Ayer skyrocketed to being Hollywood’s next big thing. Creating and penning the screenplay to Antoine Fuqua’s “Training Day”, that led Denzel Washington to his second Oscar win for best actor. The success of “Training Day” led to David Ayer having the ability to be the go-to-guy and hone his skills to fashion slick and gritty thrillers that often transpire over a brief, bloody violent window of time.
Ayer was able to make his directorial debut in 2005’s “Harsh Times”, a south L.A. crime film starring Christian Bale. This led to his two best films Keanu Reeves criminally under-seen “Street Kings” and the Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena “End Of Watch”. Taking a break from his comfort zone, Ayer directed “Fury” with Brad Pitt, the DC comics “Suicide Squad” and the Netflix original film “Bright” with Will Smith.
Ayer is back and taking to a smaller scale production with “The Tax Collector”. It’s another South L.A. crime tale that is as close as any of us are going to get to see South L.A. onscreen. Ayer has done so many of these gangland movies he’s got it down to a science. Which is unfortunate because he just ends up taking us down a familiar blood soaked road of drugs, money, night clubs, shoot-outs, tragedy and gang rivalries.
“Harsh Times” and “End Of Watch” could easily be a companion piece to “The Tax Collector”. And while “End Of Watch” is one of the best crime dramas of the previous decade that focused on two police officers (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena) dealing with L.A.’s criminal underbelly. “The Tax Collector” approaches that social environment from the opposite angle as we follow two bagmen who are known as “tax collectors”, for an unseen Los Angeles crime lord known only as the Wizard.
Bobby Soto is the level-headed David, who goes about his rounds collecting “taxes” for the Wizard with a business-like efficiency, he believes in violence only as a last resort and maintains a precarious balance between his criminal activities and a warm and luxurious home life with his wife Alexis (the stunning and new celebrity crush of mine Cinthya Carmona) and their two adorable children.
Shia LaBeouf is David’s sidekick, who goes by the name Creeper. He is a tightly wound bundle of nervous and borderline sociopathic energy who has the cauliflower ears of a former prize fighter, almost never takes off his sunglasses and walks into every room as if he’s expecting a fight and will be disappointed if one doesn’t materialize. “The Tax Collector” presents some intriguing setups in the well-paced but seemingly aimless first hour, as David and Creeper find themselves in a number of dicey situations as they make their collections, while David also tends to a number of family matters, including the planning of an elaborate Quinceanera celebration for his daughter.
Comedian George Lopez turns in a strikingly great dramatic performance as David’s Uncle Louis, an old-school player who runs a thriving auto repair business but is also a lifelong criminal who has treated David like a son ever since his father was out of the picture. George Lopez steals the scenes he is in including a nifty touch of a scene when Louis and David discuss business as they use sign language in case Louis’ office is bugged or there’s a rat in the house.
But once the Wizard’s former rival, Conejo (Los Angeles rap artist Jose Conejo Martin) surfaces in L.A. and announces his intentions to wipe out the Wizard’s operation and take control of the city. “The Tax Collector” takes a deep and overwrought dive into matters of religion and faith, from the traditional (a family reciting the Lord’s Prayer over dinner) to the darkest of the dark, including an audacious ritual straight out of a Satanic horror movie.
If you’ve seen the trailers to “The Tax Collector” then you’ve seen the way the acting credits are set up. Which only makes it the more obvious where Shia LaBeouf’s role is headed. The fate of his character only makes LaBeouf’s dedication to his character that more mind boggling and his dedication has become a topic of conversation. It’s been known in the past few years of Shia LaBeouf’s method acting. One of the cases was his casting in David Ayer’s World War II tank actioner “Fury” opposite Brad Pitt. LaBeouf had refused to bathe for weeks, he purposely cut himself in the face to give himself a permanent scar (which is still clearly visible) and pulled out his own tooth during the making of the movie.
To play a cholo tax collector in South L.A., LeBeouf decided his character would have two cauliflower ears (surprisingly it’s not real) and a completely tattooed chest. But instead of having a makeup artist paint his chest every morning, LeBoeuf decided to spend hours at a tattoo shop and get the tattoo done for real. Some of the elements of the tattoo are dedications to LaBeouf’s parents (his mother leaning her head on a clown that represents his father who lived his life as a traveling clown act) and his relationship with the two. The bottom piece features the word “Creeper” across his stomach (his characters name from the movie) and is finished off with Mickey Mouse’s gloves representing LaBeouf’s Disney career. So really it’s not all about “The Tax Collector”, although that’s what inspired it.
And yet with that much dedication, we never really see the dominating tattoo except for a very brief scene that makes it impossible to decipher the actual tattoo. LaBeouf’s tattoo wasn’t the talk of the town. It came along with a controversy when the trailer for the film led to accusations that LaBeouf’s character is a racist caricature; of LaBeouf who is Jewish playing a Latino and while Ayer’s defenses on social media have been flimsy, at best.
So far LaBeouf’s tatted-up chest is the only thing people remember and the first thing they bring up when it comes to the movie. Maybe Ayer and his team should have worried less about his tattoos and spent more time on the character because as much as Creeper likes to boast about how much of a bad dude he is. He never actually participates in any moments that showcase what a baddie he is, which was a big letdown. There is no doubt that LaBeouf’s charisma and deliberate presentation of Creeper anchors the film. LaBeouf, who grew up making films, knows exactly how to seize the viewer’s attention and despite his characters shortcomings he does that here.
When LeBeouf is not on screen, it’s newcomer Bobby Soto’s show. Unfortunately Soto’s David isn’t a particularly engaging character. Despite the best efforts of Bobby Soto, the arc that has been sketched out for him as he navigates an increasingly dire set of circumstances feels rote and predictable. It all culminates in a rushed third act reveal that is meant perhaps to reframe the narrative but just becomes a formulaic revenge picture that explodes into a gruesome orgy of violence and leaving us deadened by bullets and bloodshed.
It comes complete with Ayer showing us what “dragged across concrete” means when an exposed skull is used as a visual demonstration. Ayer punches up the indie looking production with a slickly shot slow motion firefight in the third act that’s beautifully rendered. Good on Ayer for breaking out real, blood-ejecting squibs rather than inserting an after the fact CGI.
“The Tax Collector” is well-worn territory for David Ayer. The filmmaker made a name for himself writing and directing these crime films that all focus on law enforcement and street gangs. He also frequently sets up many of his films in Los Angeles, where he lived as a teenager. Ayer was slated to direct Universal’s “Scarface” reboot but dropped out of the project and he’s currently set to remake “The Dirty Dozen” for Warner Bros. He’s even trying to feed off the success of the Snyder cut movement and get Warner Bros. to release an Ayer cut of “Suicide Squad”. (Please, let’s not encourage him).
Ayer, is just the poor man’s Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”, “The Replacement Killers”, “Olympus Has Fallen” and “The Equalizer 1 & 2”). “The Tax Collector” is an underachieving, exceedingly violent urban gangster film with the simplest of simple storylines that seems like a particularly short-sighted film that’s just a blend of crime movie clichés. It’s just another day and another same old David Ayer movie.
GRADE: ★★☆☆☆ (2 out of 5)