Every few years, David Ayer reminds us that Michael Bay isn’t the only director blowing stuff up for no reason. Bright, Sabotage and Street Kings are examples of what Bayhem would look like if it were rated R and his latest film, The Tax Collector, is no exception.
The Tax Collector begins in a very expected way for this sort of thing. After breakfast with his wife and kids, David (Bobby Soto) teams up with his partner in crime, Creeper (Shia LaBeouf). Their job is to collect payments from dozens of street gangs for a protection racket run by Wizard, who’s seen with his back toward the camera in a prison cell. Before you can wonder just who the heck this guy is, bodies start piling up in Los Angeles, where the head of the Mexican Cartel, Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin), is savagely, furiously and ceaselessly taking over Wizard’s business.
With a fetish for human sacrifice, Conejo is the most cartoonish villain this side of John Travolta in Battlefield Earth. He smokes cigars and says stuff like “I am the future, you are the past.” But he isn’t the only caricature here, as all the gang members are stereotypes, which isn’t a good look for Ayer, whose depiction of the Latinx community as thugs has got him in trouble before.
The more gangs David and Creeper meet with, the shorter their list of problems gets. The film’s list of problems, however, grows exponentially over time. Some of them include:
- Toxic masculinity
- Zero pacing
- Too much shaky cam
- Not enough visual style
- Every Latin American either owns a gun or a tire shop
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Those are just a few of the notes I jotted down by the halfway point, but I must go on. The movie certainly does. It’s 95 minutes of gruelling, excruciating, meaninglessness. While Ayer establishes David as the good gangster, he spends just as much time establishing Conejo as pure evil. That’s reflected in grotesque rituals, including a scene where he bathes in the blood of a human sacrifice with his sidekick, Gata (Cheyenne Rae Hernandez).
Ayer’s strategy is to set the stage for a battle of good vs. evil, which usually works in gangland pictures, but fails to connect here. The problem is that David isn’t really a hero. He makes a show out of pretending to act tough, threatening to bash in skulls and seduce people’s girlfriends, which is your classic “Ayer good guy.” Nonetheless, Soto is solid in his first major role, and the supporting Latino cast – notably, George Lopez and Chelsea Rendon – commit to the few scenes they get to shine in.
LaBeouf shines the brightest, though. As Creeper, he wears alpha male virility like a badge of honor, with a scowl etched on his face like the chest tattoo he got for the role. It’s permanent, too. But it’s also rarely seen, since Creeper spends almost the entire film in a three piece suit. In fact, you only see the tattoo once, which makes his commitment a curious one.
Eventually, Creeper and David face off with Conejo in a battle of “who can look the silliest while slaughtering thugs?” The winner turns out to be Ayer, whose dramatic, flashback epiphanies in combat are laughable. As with his finales in Bright and Suicide Squad, he uses shaky cam and a throbbing musical score to create macho realism, yet combines that realism with slo-mo and flashbacks for a jumbled, surrealist effect.
The Tax Collector flings blood, guts, testosterone and Latinx characters to the wall to see what sticks. And in many ways, it pulls that off, especially when all those things are literally splattered on walls. But the filmmakers don’t have the good sense to let the bloodbath veer into camp, so it remains a bewildering and depressing piece of action trash. Do any of the characters have a reason to kill? No. Are the explosions Michael Bay-esque? Yep. Does a gangster shout “make me invisible to the government’s eye!” before beheading someone? Obviously.
What more could you possibly expect from a David Ayer movie? Beats me.