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“The Tax Collector” Showcases The Best And Worst Of David Ayer

There are several constants that you find in a David Ayer movie. He loves to explore the world of crime, as well as the thin lines of good and evil that exist within the criminal underworld. The same goes for when he’s focusing on cops (or even, I suppose, anti-heroes or super villains in Suicide Squad). We’ve seen Ayer’s best with End of Watch and Fury (plus his script for Training Day), as well as his worst with Suicide Squad (even if that wasn’t completely his fault). His newest outing, The Tax Collector, has several elements of good Ayer, as well as bad Ayer. The end result is a frustrating experience that hints at his talents but manages to let you down.

The film is a mix of crime drama and action outing, more or less what you’d come to expect from this particular storyteller. David Cuevas (Bobby Soto) is a family man, first and foremost, but he’s also a “tax collector” for his gang. A lieutenant for the mysterious Wizard, he works under his Uncle Louis (George Lopez), getting assignments out of a body shop. Along with David’s partner Creeper (Shia LaBeouf), they go around making daily collections for high ranking Los Angeles gang members, all throughout the city. He makes sure they pay up, for fear of retaliation, as well as in order to receive protection. They’re good at their job, though Creeper has a harder edge than Bobby, who occasionally shows compassion. One day, during collection, they encounter a rival crime boss in Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin), known for his violent tendencies. Thought to have been permanently hiding in Mexico, he’s returned to the States and is planning to take over. He offers David a job, but when he shows loyalty to the Wizard, Conejo sets about destroying everything he loves, including his family. Ayer writes and directs, with music by Michael Yezerski. Supporters here include Cinthya Carmona, Cheyenne Rae Hernandez, Aaliyah Lopez, Brian Martin Ortega, Cle Sloan, Jimmy Smits, and more. Salvatore Totino handles the cinematography.

There’s some promise here, initially. Shia LaBeouf’s performance, as well as his character, is a consistent spark during the first half. A diverse and largely non-white cast is a welcome sight, while David Ayer’s feel for the world is gritty and vibrant. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last. Ultimately, it’s rather mean-spirited and doesn’t really see its premise through to the end. When the body count begins, the interest disappears. LaBeouf gets all the best lines, making Creeper a memorable creation, but once the focus moves solely to Bobby Soto’s Davis, the originality vanishes. We’ve seen conflicted criminals before, especially when they’re living a kind-hearted family life at odds with their otherwise violent existence. Ayer and Soto bring nothing to that, while Jose Conejo Martin’s villain is almost cartoonish in his brutality, along with not being a particularly compelling actor. There’s a clear point where this movie jumps the shark, and once it does, there’s no going back.

The Tax Collector fails in part because it eventually just becomes a greatest hits session for Ayer, without anything really new to offer. His films often have a creative spark to them that this one just does not contain. It’s admirable that a filmmaker now able to work on the blockbuster level chooses to make something smaller and more intimate, but that alone is not enough. The flick ultimately lacks an identity, content to be gory and unflinching in its brutality, at the expense of the characters it initially seemed to have interest in. That disinterest winds up being its undoing.

Tomorrow, folks looking for some violent action will have an option in The Tax Collector. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for more, something you may well expect, given David Ayer’s talents, you’re going to be let down. There are things to like here, but it’s lost in a hazy of gore, mean-spiritedness, and a general malaise that sets in. Frankly, at this point we can and should expect more from Ayer. He’s too good a filmmaker for this kind of mediocrity, so it’s hard to look at this as much more than a disappointment. Your mileage may vary, but I was let down.

The Tax Collector hits screens this weekend.

(Photos courtesy of RLJE Films)

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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