Movie Review ~ The Tax Collector


The Facts
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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

Rated: R

Running Length:

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.

Movie Review ~ Suicide Squad

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A secret government agency recruits imprisoned supervillains to execute dangerous black ops missions in exchange for clemency.

Stars: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Cara Delevingne, Adam Beach, Karen Fukuhara

Director: David Ayer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: About halfway through Suicide Squad, a dejected looking Deadshot (Will Smith) remarks “For a few seconds there, I had hope”…and he’s on to something. The pre-credit studio/production company logos have a dirty neon sheen to them and I felt the briefest tingle of excitement, some eager optimism that the last big film of the summer would be swooping in to save an otherwise lackluster season of good but not great entertainment. Instead of saving the day this stinker of a superhero film winds up burning down the house in a most spectacular fashion.

Warner Brothers and DC Comics continue to have a major identity problem, which is causing a sizable rift in their plans to build up a superhero universe franchise to rival Marvel Studios. Though they possess the most recognizable caped characters of them all (Batman and Superman) they haven’t yet been able to deliver a fully satisfying entry, or at least one that pleases both the critics and the audiences. Man of Steel was too dark, unwisely going the route of The Dark Knight’s gloom and doom and while I wasn’t as out for blood as the majority of critics were, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice had such significant structure problems that it wound up collapsing under its own turgid weight.

It’s easy to imagine that with BvS underperforming all eyes turned to Suicide Squad to right a listing ship and it’s not hard to see that this film has been heavily fussed with…to the point where it’s plot is almost completely incomprehensible. I’ve no doubt that writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch, Fury) had a plan going into production but wound up bowing down to the studio heads and compromising his vision for the sake of the franchise, not to mention watering down the violence/language to fit into an ill-advised PG-13 rating.

There are a lot of characters to introduce and the movie is a herky jerky stumble through of brief origin stories, none of which feel long enough or inspire any sort of investment of interest for the next two hours. Deadshot (Smith, Winter’s Tale) is shown as both a family man and top-priced assassin, captured by a cameo-ing crusader in front of his young daughter. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, The Legend of Tarzan) turns to the dark side after playing head games with her former patient, The Joker (Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club) while inner-city gangbanger Diablo (Jay Hernandez, Bad Moms) spews flames whenever his temper gets the better of him. Rounding out the group is Boomerang (Jai Courtney, The Water Diviner), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Trumbo), and Enchantress (Cara Delevingne, Paper Towns). The lone squad member given zero introduction is Slipknot (Adam Beach) in appearance so brief I’m shocked he wasn’t edited out completely.

All of these rogues were rounded up by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, Prisoners) a morally stunted government agent that sees using bad guys to do good as a way to get in front of the new meta-human uprising. It’s never clear why Waller is as hard-nosed as she is, Ayer gives her no backstory or even a kernel of a hint as to her motivation and Davis plays her with uncharacteristic vacancy. Assisting Waller in keeping the rag tag team in line is Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop), Lt. Edwards (Scott Eastwood, The Longest Ride) and the ghost-blade wielding Katana (Karen Fukuhara).

Bringing the team together occupies the first hour while the second is filled with their first mission when they learn to stop thinking about escaping and start working together. When the Enchantress goes all magically evil, Waller sends the Suicide Squad in to stop her, leading to low stake fights on dark soundstages with poor CGI creations and terrible dialogue of quippy one-liners that fall flat. Throwing in some twists that lazily wriggle more than they interestingly tangle, the picture sputters through its overblown finale before giving up the ghost and paving the way to Wonder Woman and Justice League in 2017.

Smith and Robbie are interesting enough in their roles, though to call Robbie a breakout star based on her performance here is not that accurate. Sure, she’s probably the flashiest thing about the film but when it’s based purely on sexuality instead of characterization you have to wonder who the role is ultimately in service to. Much has been made of Leto’s wild methods in his creation of a new Joker but he’s in so little of the film that whatever impression he was supposed to make is likely on the cutting room floor…which is fine because when he does show up he’s so terrible that the less you see him the better. It’s fitting that Delevingne and Kinnaman’s characters are linked by love because they’re both dreadful, with Delevingne working her eyebrows and lisp into a frenzy whenever she’s threatened. Courtney and Akinnuoye-Agbaje barely register while Hernandez is the only vaguely root-able character in the whole bunch.

Now that Suicide Squad is open and will likely make a killing at the box office this weekend, on Monday morning I’d expect some heads to roll over at Warner Brothers as a way to exorcise the demons that the studio simply can’t shake. There needs to be a bit of cleaning the slate if there is any hope of saving future installments in this DC Universe. Hopes are high that Wonder Woman can give critics and audiences what they want, a decently composed intelligent adventure that’s not so damn dark.

The Silver Bullet ~ Suicide Squad

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Synopsis: A secret government agency recruits imprisoned supervillains to execute dangerous black ops missions in exchange for clemency.

Release Date: August 5, 2016

Thoughts: One thing that’s always bothered me about the slate of Marvel movies released over the past several years is that they’ve all been so damn sunny. Sure, they’re fighting some pretty bad baddies and lives are certainly lost…but there’s a particular lack of edge that can sometimes result in the stakes being a little lowered. I’ve always leaned toward the darkness of the DC Comics world through outings with Batman and Superman…but next summer DC takes it a step further with Suicide Squad.

Our first look at the highly anticipated flick may clock in over three minutes but it seems to only skim the surface at director David Ayer’s vision of the bad side of justice. Ayer has delivered the goods in films like End of Watch and Fury so I’m especially excited to see him put those talents to work on this franchise starter. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyer’s Club) is getting the major press for his nightmare inducing take on The Joker but don’t forget that the film also stars Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), Will Smith (Winter’s Tale), Viola Davis (Prisoners), and a few other not-so-surprise cameos that live within this universe.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Fury

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Synopsis: April, 1945. As the Allies make their final push in the European Theatre, a battle-hardened army sergeant commands a Sherman tank and her five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines.

Release Date: October 17, 2014

Thoughts: I still stand by my claim that director David Ayer’s End of Watch was one of the truly underrated films of 2012 and though he didn’t quite continue that wave of success with Sabotage earlier this year I’m willing to forgive him if Fury lives up to expectations. Though star Brad Pitt (World War Z) is without question one of the top A-List stars Hollywood has to offer, his track record isn’t exactly spotless. The actor has had more than his fair share of out of the box failures but continues to earn points for not resting on his laurels. Fury seems like a film the star can be at home in and Ayer has placed several promising members of young Hollywood (like The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Logan Lerman) alongside him. Let’s leave troubled Shia LeBeouf (Lawless) out of that equation, though.