'The Tax Collector': Film Review

THE TAX COLLECTOR Still 3 - RLJE Films Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy of Justin Lubin/RLJE Films
Limited returns.

Bobby Soto and Shia LaBeouf play protection racketeers facing a vicious takeover bid on their turf in South Los Angeles gangland in David Ayer's crime thriller.

Violent Los Angeles street culture on both sides of the law has been an abiding fascination in David Ayer's output, notably in his bruising screenplay for Training Day and his nervy, documentary-style cop drama, End of Watch. The buddy dynamic and gritty milieu of that 2012 film invigorate the best elements of The Tax Collector, the writer-director's return to a smaller-scale project after taking a critical hammering with the big-budget, high-concept outings of Suicide Squad and Netflix's Bright. "So why another L.A. crime movie?" asks Ayer in his Director's Statement. Why, indeed.

Despite a lot of admirable aims, such as creating layered roles for the Latino acting community and spending production dollars in areas that could benefit from the economic boost, this grim bloodbath feels too routine to be of much interest.

The well-acted film is shot by Salvatore Totino with impressive dexterity, capturing the urban sprawl of L.A. with a sharp eye and deft ability to build textured atmosphere, and Geoffrey O'Brien's editing shows an equally propulsive hand. But almost everything about this mean-streets action thriller feels familiar and a touch self-important, starting with its heralding of the sacred code blasted over a portrait of protagonist David (Bobby Soto) with his beautiful wife and angelic kids: "Love. Honor. Loyalty. Family."

The vaunted authenticity legitimized by Ayer's upbringing in South L.A. in the 1970s and '80s in this case doesn't mean he has a fresh perspective. The conflict of a loyal lieutenant in a criminal organization who compartmentalizes his life into hard-core career thug on one side, devoted paterfamilias on the other — "God allows me to walk from the darkness and come back into the light," says David — by now seems a standard gangster trope. As soon as that's established, we know exactly where he's going to feel the pain.

While Soto (Narcos: Mexico) makes a reasonably charismatic lead, the more magnetic character is his sidekick, a twitchy killing machine known as Creeper (Shia LaBeouf, reuniting with Ayer after Fury). Encased in figure-hugging skinny suits, Mafia-grade sunglasses and just the right amount of bling, LaBeouf goes full Method with his flavorful dialogue and wired physicality, whether Creeper is extolling the virtues of his smelly protein diet, musing on the value of morning meditation and the meaninglessness of God in his universe or simply itching to stop talking and spill some blood. The actor builds a fully formed character that suggests an intriguing backstory, giving off sparks in his every scene.

Regrettably, that's not so much the case with the more generically drawn David and his wife Alexis (Cinthya Carmona), who is perceived as being safely outside the family's criminal operations but has enough of a stake in the business to know what's what. She certainly has no qualms about calling on David to put the fear of death into the "Mexican Kardashians" holding up work on their daughter's quinceañera dress, and she oversees the weekly tally of protection money collected by David and Creeper from 43 different L.A. street gangs.

Alexis is also the point person who communicates directly with Wizard, the overlord of the crime organization whose current situation (along with the unbilled famous name playing the role) is revealed in the film's closing scene.

David's connection to Wizard becomes apparent only gradually, once an old rival of the crime boss returns from Mexico intent on reshaping the street-gang landscape according to his own rules. That hostile interloper, Conejo (borrowing the rapper name of Jose Martin, who plays the role with maximum menace), takes pleasure in reminding David how he's still a glorified errand boy instead of a fully-fledged made man.

Conejo first extends a hand offering David an executive role in his burgeoning empire. When that offer is declined, Conejo sends a brutal message via David's drug dealer Uncle Louis (comedian George Lopez, bringing understated snarl to a dramatic role). "I'm the future and you're the past," Conejo warns David, later adding, "Everything you love is gonna die." 

While David prays to Jesus to keep his family and their palatial Spanish-style home safe, Conejo's religious rituals make Santeria look like Sunday school. The movie veers into grotesquerie as he prays at an unholy altar for protection in the oncoming turf war, bathing in the blood of a human sacrifice in a room that looks like Keith Haring threw a Dia de los Muertos party.

This might have been lurid fun from a director who didn't take it all so seriously, even if it's in questionable taste at a time when the White House administration has done everything in its power to demonize Latin American immigrants. There's little leeway for dark humor in Ayer's world, though I did get a kick out of Conejo's lady friend Gata (Cheyenne Rae Hernandez). Licking her lips lasciviously, the aptly named feline fiend can lob explosives and rain bullets from a semi-automatic all while skipping about on vertiginous heels. And you don't even want to know about her skills with a hammer. But Gata is a figure out of a Robert Rodriguez grindhouse world stuck in a fundamentally realist realm.

The inevitable faceoff between Conejo's goons and Wizard's is plenty bloody, intercut with Conejo's Satanic prayers. But the sequence feels almost perfunctory, yielding few surprises for a director with the sinewy action command Ayer has shown in the past. Pretty much everything that follows becomes both predictable and a little too easy as David musters all his force to protect what's most precious to him, calling on help from the leader of a Bloods gang (Cle Sloan) in his showdown with Conejo.

Earlier scenes have sketched in David's strategic ability to accrue loyalty as well as the humanity he shows when one gang rep's payment shortfall is explained by the medical expenses of his chronically ill daughter. But Ayer seems to be laboring under the misapprehension that the family-oriented gangster is something new in movies, along with the conflicted cycle of intergenerational violence. When blood-drenched David starts spouting hackneyed dialogue like "For my family, I live. For my family, I die. For my family, I kill," it's hard to stifle a groan. And the incorporation of the Zen aspects of Jiu Jitsu into his climactic fight is too flimsy to add anything.

Ayer drives the action along efficiently enough to the churning dread of Michael Yezerski's score. But there's too little depth to make you care about the characters and too little imagination at work to make The Tax Collector pay.

Production companies: Fast Horse Pictures, Kodiak Pictures, Cedar Park Entertainment
Distributor: RLJE Films (select theaters, VOD, digital)
Cast: Bobby Soto, Cinthya Carmona, George Lopez, Shia LaBeouf, Elpidia Carrillo, Lana Parrilla, David Castañeda, Conejo, Cheyenne Rae Hernandez, Cle Sloan, Noemi Gonzalez, Juan Carlos Cantu, Chelsea Rendon, Rene Moran
Director-screenwriter: David Ayer
Producers: Chris Long, David Ayer, Tyler Thompson, Matt Antoun
Executive producers: Douglas Duncan, Buddy Patrick, Steve Matzkin, Misook Doolittle, Sarah Schroeder-Matzkin, Mickey Gooch, Jr., Doug McKay, Cindy Bond, Todd Williams
Director of photography: Salvatore Totino
Production designer: Andrew Menzies
Costume designer: Kelli Jones
Music: Michael Yezerski
Editor: Geoffrey O'Brien
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham-Ahanonu

95 minutes