Synopsis: A “tax collector” for a crime lord finds his family’s safety compromised when his boss’s old rival shows up in LA and upends his business.
Stars: Bobby Soto, Cinthya Carmona, Shia LaBeouf, Jose Conejo Martin, Cheyenne Rae Hernandez, Lana Parrilla, Elpidia Carrillo, George Lopez, Jimmy Smits
Director: David Ayer
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: For a while there, it seemed like David Ayer was going to make a nice name for himself as the go-to guy for macho man filmmaking that had a rare crossover appeal to a larger audience. Beginning as the screenwriter of U-571 and the original The Fast and The Furious before hitting the A-list scripting Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning Training Day, Ayer directed two under the radar features before scoring big in 2012. That’s the year End of Watch debuted and it gave Ayer the chance to marry his hard-nosed storylines with a superior ability for creating high tension sequences. His follow-ups, both released in 2014, were was the lesser but still strong Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer Sabotage and Fury, the Brad Pitt tank film that should have garnered more acclaim than it did.
So you’d understand why it was with more than a modicum of excitement that I began to look forward to Ayer taking the reins of the newest DC Comics adaptation, Suicide Squad in 2018. A darker version of The Avengers (another comic book team I had no real knowledge of before their big screen debut), this was a star-studded film set to be a franchise starting blockbuster. Understanding what little I did about the Suicide Squad, it seemed like a perfect fit for Ayer’s grimier aesthetics which led to genuine interest that soon turned to fear when it was announced the film would be rated PG-13 instead of the assumed R. When it was released, it was, as feared, a neutered piece of gaudy garbage that didn’t resemble anything Ayer had done before and what I’d hope he never do again. Aside from 2017’s Bright, another critically lambasted film released on Netflix that still managed to get the service to sign Ayer to a sequel that’s in development (Suicide Squad was so bad Warner Brothers is already rebooting it as The Suicide Squad in 2021), the director has been largely silent since his Squad goals were squandered away.
I was hesitant at first to get my hopes up that Ayer’s latest feature would be the kind of true return to form the writer/director sorely needed to get himself back into the game. After all, The Tax Collector sort of snuck up on everyone and is arriving in the middle of this pandemic crisis which hasn’t afforded it much in the way of publicity aside. In fact, aside from a few mentions in the gossip blogs about co-star Shia LaBeouf getting a rather large tattoo on his chest in preparation for the film, I didn’t even know this movie existed before the link came my way to watch. While it’s nice to report that his new film returns Ayer to a space that he feels more comfort in and characters that could almost in habit the same universe as those in his previous features, it’s ultimately a too-familiar retread that wallows in its gratuitous violence.
The urban streets of L.A. are the main stage of Ayer’s action in The Tax Collector, which focuses on David Cuevas (Bobby Soto, The Quarry) and his extended family and associates who are caught up in the violent sprawl of a criminal organization teetering on the brink of upheaval. David and his partner Creeper (Le Beouf, The Peanut Butter Falcon) are responsible for making sure the streets gangs in their neighborhood are staying up to date on their “taxes” which are owed to Wizard, the jailed crime lord that keeps them safe. Those that fail to pay or are delinquent have to answer to Creeper, a cauliflower-eared, easily-angered powder keg of a live wire that contrasts nicely with David’s more serene yet still serious de facto leader.
When Conejo, (Jose Conejo Martin) an enemy from Wizard’s past, returns and tests David’s allegiance, it sets off a series of bloody events which play out with frightening clarity under the cinematography of Salvatore Totino. As Conejo continues to apply pressure to David and Creeper via various horrific methods, it forces the men into a corner where they’ll have to either join him or fight him and there can only be one survivor in the end. No one is ever safe in Ayer’s films and The Tax Collector is no different; characters are brutally dispatched, many of whom would normally survive in typically Hollywood-happy style films. For that, you have to admire Ayer’s willingness to buck trends but the film is so grotesquely violent that the longer the movie runs the less you want to watch because it becomes so unpleasant.
Part of me wonders if that’s sort of the point Ayer is trying to make. Maybe that we care when certain characters die is a good thing because either he’s done his job or the actor has done their job…or both. If you felt nothing toward the person and their part of the story, you would have little reaction to their fateful demise and while that may be letting Ayer’s bloodlust off with a slight tap on the wrist it’s an angle to at least be examined. On the other hand, a movie that spirals into something as troubling as this does begins to work against itself by alienating its audience away, possibly inspiring them to stop watching all together. No bones about it, this is a hard one to get through and you’ll have to gird your loins to maneuver through Ayer’s hellish final reel that pulls all the disgusting stops out and takes no prisoners.
Though LeBeouf is featured heavily in the trailer and marketing materials, he’s predominately a supporting character with the lead role tipping in favor of Soto. Soto is cast well and while it takes him a bit to get going (same goes for the movie) by the time he’s educating a new gang leader on the procedure of what he does and what his expectations are, you’re bound to be paying attention. His descent from provider/family man to man on a hell-bent mission is a believable journey and he draws energy from LeBeouf who also is largely on target as a right-hand man that’s OK with getting his hands dirty. Though the role could be seen as problematic as the only white person in a cast of Latino/Latinx actors, he hasn’t been cast against race so that issue is moot. (It should be noted that the infamous tattoo is seen for a split second…was it really worth it, Shia?) Newcomer Conejo Martin is totally terrifying as the demonic psychopath after David and his organization, as is Cheyenne Rae Hernandez as a female version of LeBeaouf’s character that works for the enemy. The only actor that struggles to convince is Cinthya Carmona as David’s wife which is too bad because she’s such a pivotal role as the movie progresses.
Bound to be seen as another minor entry in Ayer’s directorial career, The Tax Collector at least earns him back some street cred that he lost when he made Suicide Squad. I know much of the failure of that film was the result of the studio meddling with the final cut but you can’t completely excuse Ayer for how that turned out. While this isn’t a great film or even a really good one if I’m being completely honest, there are enough intriguing pieces one can gather to make the viewing experience not a complete waste of time if you have the nerves to get through it.