Producers: Chris Long, David Ayer, Tyler Thompson and Matt Antoun Director: David Ayer Screenplay: David Ayer Cast: Bobby Soto, Cinthya Carmona, George Lopez, Shia LaBeouf, Elpidia Carrillo, Lana Parrilla, David Castañeda, Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin), Cheyenne Rae Hernandez, Cle Sloan, Noemi Gonzalez, Juan Carlos Cantu, Chelsea Rendon and Rene Moran Distributor: RLJE Films
Though he has been involved in a variety of movies as writer and/or director—“The Fast and the Furious,” “Fury,” “Suicide Squad”—David Ayer has constantly be drawn back to what seems his favorite motif, which finds two guys driving around the streets of Los Angeles talking (usually in a very animated way) and getting into violent action. The two are usually cops, though often troubled or corrupt ones; that was the case in his first big hit, “Training Day (2000), and it recurred in “Street Kings” (2008) and “End of Watch” (2012), as well as his big-budget Netflix bomb, “Bright” (2017), in which, just for variety’s sake, one of the partners was an orc.
In “The Tax Collector” Ayer returns to the LA streets once again, but this time the two guys are actual crooks rather than cops, crooked or not: they’re bag men who collect protection payments from street gangs for a mysterious crime lord called The Wizard. (He’s played by a well-known actor whose identity isn’t revealed until the very end, and since it’s meant to come as a surprise, his name won’t be revealed here.)
The two are very dissimilar, of course; that’s the Ayer paradigm. David Cuevas (Bobby Soto, adequate but hardly charismatic) is the cool, reserved guy, whose thuggish work—inherited from his imprisoned father, and also involving his uncle Julius (comedian George Lopez, playing against type), who’s his immediate superior in the organization—contrasts with his idyllic home life with wife Alexis (Cinthya Carmona) and their kids. He’s also prone to compassionate gestures on the job, as when he makes up the difference for a guy who comes up short in his payments after he discovers the man needed the cash for a family medical emergency.
David is paired on the street with Creeper (Shia LaBeouf), a simmering human time-bomb who favors three-piece suits, sunglasses and nihilistic rants about life. LaBeouf clearly relishes sinking his teeth into this colorful part and chewing for all it’s worth: it’s a fascinating sight, but not a pretty one.
This unlikely duo’s routine is upset when a maniacal interloper called Conejo (played with brooding menace by rapper Jose Conejo Martin, or Conejo) moves in to take over the business. He’s a really bad dude, engaging in Satanic rituals and human sacrifice to ensure his success and resorting to brutal violence at the drop of a hat. He also has a hilariously overdrawn moll in sultry Gata (Cheyenne Rae Hernandez), whose aptitude in meting out pain is matched only by the incongruity of her tight-fitting outfits and high heels.
When David rejects Conejo’s efforts to switch sides, he’s inviting trouble, and gets it. Not only do he and Creeper become targets of the newcomer’s wrath, but so do Uncle Julius, Alexis and the kids. The assault on his family—to which he gives his ultimate loyalty—drives David to extreme action in which he’s aided by Bone (Cle Sloan), head of one of the street gangs The Wizard has been shaking down. Bone’s a man of honor too, you see, and respects David too much to reject his plea for help. The final twenty minutes of “The Tax Collector” turn into an orgy of gunfire, fisticuffs, blood and gore, ending—as you might expect—with Conejo’s gruesome demise. And in a coda, the clichéd family motif is reemphasized.
Visually “The Tax Collector” looks grubby, but that’s the goal of Andrew Menses’ production design and Salvatore Torino’s cinematography, and so their work must be accounted as successful. Geoffrey O’Brien’s editing, which juxtaposes plodding encomia to family values with Creeper’s tirades and bursts of murkily-choreographed mayhem, duly follows the lead of Ayer’s hackneyed script and uninspired direction, which simply mimics the moves of his earlier, more inventive work. And Michael Yezerski’s pulsating score tries to breathe some life into the predictable narrative, without success.
This is a thoroughly unpleasant movie that suggests it’s time for Ayer to leave the streets of Los Angeles permanently. “Fury” proved that his talents can be employed with good results in other venues, and it would be wise for him to leave his old haunts behind him and move on.