If I had gone into The Tax Collector not having seen Training Day or Fury I probably would’ve come away assuming that David Ayer was some knucklehead townie with a Scarface tattoo. Insomuch as Ayer’s latest movie has principles or themes at all, it seems to worship power, wealth, cartoon masculinity and cartoon religion; a dour, incoherent shoot-em-up that plays like Mexploitation Troy Duffy.
It’s the kind of film that’s self-serious enough to be painful but not quite enough to be funny. The most interesting thing about it, in fact, is that Shia LaBeouf actually got his entire chest tattooed with the name of his character in this forgettable slog — “Creeper,” complete with a lady kissing a clown and Mickey Mouse hands throwing up signs. (Publicity stunt or not, I’m close to declaring Shia LaBeouf the brilliant performance artist his biggest fans always said he was).
Really vibing Shia Labeouf creeper stomach tattoo pic.twitter.com/kBlDNLuN5v
— Matthew Krause (@matthewtkrause) April 28, 2020
As you may have already gleaned from his giant tattoo, Labeouf plays “Creeper” in the film, a character David Ayer takes great pains to point out is not an example of a white actor playing a Chicano character, but rather a white actor playing a white character who only acts Chicano. Which is to say, Ayer takes these pains in real life. In the actual movie, Creeper is just one of many corny Tax Collector characters who pose and posture and throw in the occasional Spanglishisms like chancla or putaso. Labeouf’s whiteness, in any case, is miles down the list of The Tax Collector‘s biggest flaws. LaBeouf scrolling through the nudes on his phone is one of the few genuinely enjoyable moments in The Tax Collector (“thass Araceli from Diamond Bar”), which is only barely not a feature adaptation of the ComeOutsideFoo Instagram account.
Creeper is the muscle for David (Bobby Soto), the titular “tax collector” whose job consists of driving around LA collecting protection money from gang members. David explains this in one of The Tax Collector’s many lengthy chunks of expository dialogue, set to a montage sequence not unlike an LA cholo take on Henry Hill’s “f*ck you, pay me” sequence in Goodfellas. David begins the movie threatening one of his new vassals with dismemberment (“I seen grown men getting their limbs chopped off with chainsaws, flopping around the floor like a seal begging for their mommies”) and comparing Creeper to the devil. Yet in the very next scene, David is a devoted patriarch saying grace over the family meal. He contains multitudes, guey!
In a different storyteller’s hands, this might be considered irony. But for David Ayer, David actually is the babyface, whose devotion to Jesus and family really do make him one of the good murderers. (In another creakingly expository, and also completely unnecessary sequence, David’s wife explains that she only started dating David because he seemed tough and she wanted him to kill her dad). We know we’re meant to be rooting for David early on when he spares a dealer who held out on him because he finds out the dealer needed the money to pay for his daughter’s leukemia treatments. Ayer weirdly seems to understand that “but my daughter has cancer” sounds like a pathetic lie coming from an indigent drug dealer, even as he unironically writes the same story into his own script. The Tax Collector‘s narrative solutions always seem to consist of “yeah, but for real, bro!”
David, naturally, gets into a feud with a rival drug lord named Conejo (“rabbit,” played with enjoyable menace by Jose Conejo Martin), and much praying and shooting ensues. Oddly, while Creeper sports pronounced cauliflower ears, David is the only one we see on the jiu-jitsu mat (there’s also a cameo from UFC contender Brian “T-City” Ortega). David even has a jiu-jitsu training flashback in the middle of a fight, which he wins by hitting the bad guy with a chunk of porcelain. Which is hilarious because, while perfectly logical, bludgeoning people with exploded toilet chunks is generally not considered one of the tenets of jiu-jitsu. It’d be like the ghost of Obi-Wan showing up to say “kick ’em in the nuts, Luke!”
Meanwhile, Labeouf’s character is shown shirtless only once, for less than three seconds. Conceptually, Shia Labeouf getting his entire chest tattooed to play a character who has his shirt on for 99% of his screen time is pretty funny. Yet The Tax Collector itself is almost meticulously unfun. So much of it consists of gun and fistfights, and action movies usually seem like they’re a blast to make, but David Ayer shoots this one like a hair shirt. The fights are all pain and torture and gore without even a sense of sadistic glee. Which is weird because for all its faults, Fury has some of the best action sequences I’ve seen in a film (though it does share some of The Tax Collector‘s dour mean-spiritedness).
The Tax Collector‘s characters inhabit a world of almost pure moral relativism, yet Ayer pitches David’s climactic showdown with Conejo as a conflict of literal, Judeo-Christian good and evil. We’re talking David kissing his crucifix necklace juxtaposed with Conejo committing human sacrifice in a room scrawled with pentagrams here. I’m not exaggerating. Again, it’s a scene that sounds amazing, yet in practice is mostly a gloomy drag.
Even after all this, Ayer still saves time for the same hoary homeboys-and-éses team up sequence we saw in Training Day and Menace II Society (“the éses was cool though, they took us to the hospital.”). It’d probably feel less weird if The Tax Collector had executed it at all believably, but instead, some bloods decide to die for David’s gang war because their leader promises his friends that David is “a good dude.” I’ve always heard that, what really matters in the gang world is how good a dude you are.
Missing from all of this is any real theme or reason to care about David as anything other than a guy in a movie poster. When The Tax Collector finally ended and I checked the time bar and it said 1:35:00, I thought it had to be a lie. The movie I’d just watched felt at least two and a half hours long.