The Tax Collector | Review
Taxation without Representation: Ayer Gets Absurd in L.A. Crime Noir
The most interesting element of David Ayer’s latest crime thriller The Tax Collector is how well it showcases the writer/director’s perspectives for law enforcement officials. Unfortunately, his latest film is not from such a perspective, focusing on two henchmen for a Los Angeles crime lord who are mired in the underbelly of the city’s intricate gangland hierarchies. Such intricacy, however, is also lost in this merry-go-round of cliched hokum in a screenplay which plays like an exploitative venture from the 1970s but lacking the prestige and (limited) semblance of power and swagger those films and vintage traditions at least afforded some of those characterizations.
Considering Ayer, who cut his teeth on police procedurals which showcased a heroic protagonist butted up against rampant police corruption, from the celebrated Training Day (2001), the underrated Dark Blue (2002), to his campier affects in scripts like the first The Fast and Furious (2001) and S.W.A.T. (2003), it’s surprising to see how tonally offkey his switched perspective plays. Not unlike a similar contemporary, writer/director Taylor Sheridan, Ayer’s directorial breakouts were predicated on compromised machismo, such as End of Watch (2012) and 2013’s Sabotage (read review). Both titles mainlined similar attributes, each with exceptional set pieces and vibrant performances, though also marred by some over-the-top characteristics.
Diving headlong into studio dreck with Suicide Squad (2015) and Bright (2017), Ayer returns from tripping the light fantastic to what one would predict to be his bread and butter with The Tax Collector only to present one of his worst offerings.
While there are white people who grow up in the Los Angeles neighborhoods depicted here, and some are affiliated with these criminal activities, Shia LaBeouf remains the real eye sore of the production. If charges of brownface can potentially be assuaged effectively by merely pointing to the existence of whites in rough neighborhoods, LaBeouf’s performance and an accent which goes in and out doesn’t help this film’s intentions. His method mannerisms as Creeper feel all over the place, hiding behind cauliflower ears and a wardrobe which doesn’t seem to make much sense. LaBeouf, who starred in Ayer’s 2014 film Fury (read review), a film in which he removed one of his teeth for his role as a WWII soldier, purportedly tattooed his chest specifically for this project, which seems to have ended up on the cutting room floor for the most part.
Bobby Soto, who can also be seen opposite Michael Shannon in the recent The Quarry, also feels miscast, a clean-cut Christian whose religious ideations are meant to pose an ironic paradox with his occupation. Of more interest are the inclusion of George Lopez and Jimmy Smits as the brothers running this operation, but neither are effectively utilized. Newcomer Jose Conejo Martin supplies Ayer with a cliched element of criminal flamboyance, often delivering sing-song dialogue which further robs the film of necessary menace. However, somehow, Ayer is still able to deliver his chills with his penchant for violence in a couple choice sequences.
But any good will for The Tax Collector is mostly drained by a fatally inept script. “Everyone you know is going to die real bad,” someone says. Another, handing over a handgun, muses “It’s got a lot of murders on it.” But where Ayer reveals real vulnerability is when he tries to showcase the emotional potential of David or Creeper, the former approaching the Bloods in Compton to borrow man-power. “I need riders with heart,” he confesses. And the audience is left asking the same of The Tax Collector.