A film review by Craig J. Koban September 16, 2020

THE TAX COLLECTOR j

2020, Not Rated, 94 mins.

Shia LaBeouf as Creeper  /  Cinthya Carmona as Alexis  /  Bobby Soto as David Cuervas  /  Chelsea Rendon as Lupe  /  Cheyenne Rae Hernandez as Gata  /  Rene Moran as Victor  /  Randy Gonzalez as Pete

Written and directed by David Ayer

Very few films these days that feature decent talent in front of and behind the camera are as unpardonably wrongheaded and thoroughly wretched as THE TAX COLLECTOR, a new urban gangster thriller that makes so many ill advised decisions that you kind of wonder how the finished product came out in its final form without any measurable checks and balance system.   

Writer/director David Ayer has made, to be fair, films that I've admired (he wrote TRAINING DAY, directed the terribly underrated World War II tank-centric drama FURY and was responsible for SUICIDE SQUAD, for which I was in the minority for liking), but here he crafts a crime drama that, almost impossibly, lost my interest very, very early on in its already paltry 90 minute running time.  Outside of his preposterous miscasting of Shia LaBeouf and his insensitively caricatured performance as a Mexican-American gangbanger (more on that it a bit), THE TAX COLLECTOR commits an even larger cinematic sin of being monumentally dull and uninspired.  This film makes Ayer's STREET KINGS and BRIGHT look like THE GODFATHER I and II by comparison. 

The narrative here followers two, yes, "tax collectors" (or enforcers) that work the mean streets of Los Angeles to get their targets to cough up the dough that they owe their kingpin boss...or else.  The titular character in question is David (a bland and somewhat out of his element Bobby Soto), who collects money for his immediate superior, which happens to be his Uncle Lewis (a wonderfully cast against type George Lopez, in one of the film's few bright spots), who, in turn, works for a real boss of bosses in the form of the enigmatic "Wizard."   Despite his rough and violent ways, David is lazily normalized in the script in the most perfunctory manner possible: He has a wife in Alexis (a rather one note Cinthya Carmona) and two children, all of whom live in an unfathomably large mansion paid for via blood money (so, yeah, a happy-go-lucky family unit if there ever was one).  David has one loyal confidant and right hand man in the hot headed and itchy trigger fingered "Creeper" (a cauliflower eared and tattooed up LaBeouf), who's so psychotically unhinged that you have to wonder why anyone would partner up with him. 

Anyhoo', David's whole world as a collector is about to be thrown completely off balance with the appearance of the chronically homicidal Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin), a powerful and deadly Mexican drug cartel soldier that's been task to head to L.A. and take over the city and David's operation via any disgusting, bodily harm means necessary.  Predictably, the utterly insane Conejo gives David a simple ultimatum: Join the dark side of the drug dealing force and side with him or he and everyone close to him will mercilessly die, including the Wizard's whole empire.  Realizing that jumping fence and being with this madman is not preferred, David is forced to go on the defensive, but when targeted attacks are made on his friends and family members he soon understands the real gravity of his dire situation. 

 

 

I'll say one good thing about THE TAX COLLECTOR.  One...and then that's it.  Ayer has a decent knack for casting and generating strong performances from his actors (I'm thinking of Jake Gyllenhaal in END OF WATCH or Christian Bale in the very little seen HARSH TIMES or even LaBeouf in FURY).  One bit of casting that works sensationally well here is Lopez, mostly known for light comedic fare.  His performance as the aforementioned uncle character is shockingly good and layered, and his WTF appearance and his atypical casting gives THE TAX COLLECTOR a much needed adrenaline shot to the heart that it woefully needs.  Unfortunately, the same can't be said about Soto in the lead role, though, as he ranges from wooden to laughably histrionic in his undisciplined performance.  He's not really helped at all by Ayer's tone deaf and meandering scripting, which unfortunately never gives David much in the way of a personality, nor does it paint him with any empathetic strokes.  When all is said and done, he's just another undeveloped minority hoodlum that has regrettably permeated far too many forgettable films over the years.  Since we simply don't care about David, there's nothing else surrounding him to care about either.  I never once felt pity for this man or his predicament. 

Speaking of minority hoodlums, just what in the hell was up with LaBeouf's hilariously offensive casting here?  The actor, to his esteemed credit, is capable of giving many a fly in under the radar performance of real emotional weight (see last year's splendid THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON or HONEY BOY), but in THE TAX COLLECTOR his Creeper is all mannered posturing and not much else.  LaBeouf snorts and growls with a thoroughly unconvincing Latino accent (imagine what Pacino did in SCARFACE, but at a more unbearably flat register) and gets extreme method with costuming (he infamously tattooed his character's nickname on his chest...for real...to be in this film, a move that feels self-absorbed in its silliness in pure hindsight).  I've read that LaBeouf's Creeper was not actually Mexican, but instead is - by Ayer's after release fact admission - a Jewish man that's so immersed in the Mexican gangsta lifestyle that he thinks that he's one of them.  None of this is ever convincingly relayed in THE TAX COLLECTOR, which leaves LaBeouf's whitewashed presence coming off as unintentionally repellent.  So, okay, maybe Creeper wasn't meant to be Mexican, but the actor still plays up to every crude and stigmatizing stereotype in the book with his cartoonishly awful acting on display; it's just so borderline distracting.   

Plus, how many more films do we need that presents people of color as murderous gangsters?  Honestly.  Nearly all of the players on display in the story are broadly delineated and casually racist stock types, and the manner that Ayer uses his female characters in particular as plot moving props is equally troubling (they're either utterly defenseless damsels that are beaten to a pulp that require saving from the anti-hero or sociopathic, blood thirsty animals that align with the main villain).  THE TAX COLLECTOR offers up next to nothing when it comes to subtle nuance in exploring the criminal underbelly of this seedy world, and the end result is presented in such a relentlessly predictable manner that tells viewers nothing that they haven't already seen in the litany of other similar genre pictures over the years.  All Ayer is left to do is pepper the film with brain splattering and bone mashing mayhem, and some of the action beats do generate momentary sparks of visual energy, but they're not enough to save this picture as a whole.  Plus, the loathsome violence is amped up to truly nauseating levels of extremeness, with some scenes of sensationalistic sadism coming out of relative no where in hopes of shocking viewers (there's one moment in particular that involves a gruesome murder of a naked woman by the main baddie in some sort of cult-like ritual that feels completely out of left field). 

THE TAX COLLECTOR has so many odious elements to easily make it one of Ayer's worst offerings of his career (which, again, has had it's share of strong successes and weak failures), but amidst all of this film's feeble scripting, numbing gore, and obnoxiously disagreeable  characters I was left with one overwhelming question: Why should anyone become invested and interested in anyone or anything in this story?  Most certainly, some of the greatest crime dramas of all time have featured morally skewed crooks, but those films worked overtime to tap into the wounded vulnerabilities of these people and made them relatable and humanized.  Ayer achieves none of that with his criminals in THE TAX COLLECTOR, which leaves them completely lacking in memorable depth and complexity.  I think there was a reason that this film was shot two years ago and was then unceremoniously released via VOD this past week.  It probably would have never passed a theatrical release worthy qualitative audit.

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