The Tax Collector proves itself another messy David Ayer thriller that’s somehow not as bad as people will pretend but nowhere near any good.
Shia LaBeouf is famously quite an odd fellow, which sometimes overshadows the fact that he’s a really good actor when the mood strikes him, as it has recently in both The Peanut Butter Falcon and Honey Boy. I mention this because the real-life tattoo that one assumes he got in order to more completely understand his gangland enforcer character Creeper, a supporting player in David Ayer’s messy new thriller The Tax Collector, caused a bit of a stir. It felt once again like his real-life exploits getting in the way of his talents; why worry about his ink when you could instead be laughing at his nebulously Latinx impression instead?
I don’t really have any idea if Creeper is supposed to be a Latino or a kind of Latino by osmosis. I had the same problem with Theo Rossi’s character Shades in Marvel’s Luke Cage, but it matters even less here than it did there. The whole film’s full of offhandedly racist portrayals anyway; if LeBeouf is co-opting the culture just to be lazily and disparagingly stereotyped in unity with his co-stars, then that seems like the least of anyone’s problems. A much bigger one is that The Tax Collector is pretty impressively and sometimes bafflingly awful.
Many people expected this, but for the wrong reasons – Shia LeBeouf playing Latino in the latest film from the outspoken director of Bright and Suicide Squad is a pretty ripe recipe for mockery, after all. But I quite like David Ayer, and I’d happily argue that from 2012 to 2014 he made back-to-back bangers in the cop thriller End of Watch, the enjoyably bloody Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle Sabotage, and his all-star World War II tank actioner, Fury, in which LaBeouf also starred and gave a good account of himself. His latest effort didn’t have any studio meddling, as far as I’m aware, which does make one wonder if those people still hankering after the “Ayer Cut” of Suicide Squad are perhaps barking up the wrong tree. If this is the film Ayer makes when left to his own devices, it’s looking increasingly like the good stuff he’s made were the flukes, not the other way around.
Anyway, The Tax Collector. The best thing about this film is that it’s bad all the way through and in all the ways that matter, so there’s none of that disappointment in thinking it could have been better if only it weren’t so badly plotted and incomprehensibly edited. There’s probably no version of this film, even the conceptual one that presumably existed in David Ayer’s head, that would ever be any good, and that’s refreshing, you know? I’ve already seen fellow critics claiming it’s the worst film of the year, which is ridiculous. It isn’t aggressively bad, it’s just reliably, lazily, consistently bad.
The problem is that it never gets so bad that it becomes good. This relentlessly miserable tale of David (Bobby Soto), the titular tax collector who takes 30% from gangland shenanigans so he can kick it up to an against-type but surprisingly decent George Lopez, doesn’t have the sense of humor or enough – read: any – interesting ideas to earn itself backhanded compliments. The clichés begin piling up right away: David’s a loving family man whose daughter is due a Quinceañera, but in his busy professional life hefty chunks of change are going missing and the arrival of Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin), an old enemy of his boss, doesn’t bode well for the short-term future. Creeper is David’s muscle and friend, and LaBeouf gives him something of a personality, but the film’s much less about him that it is David, which is a shame because he’s a charisma trap from which no personality can possibly escape.
We’re expected to care about David through a surprisingly dull two-act period, during which he and Creeper roam around L.A. and some things happen, none of them good or surprising. In the last 45 minutes or so we’re expected to… well, I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. The death of a major character occurs during a video call that is so incomprehensibly edited and messily over the top that I genuinely started laughing aloud, and from that point on I lost track of the plot altogether. Ayer, for all his faults, is usually a technically competent filmmaker, so I’m not sure what happened here. The violence and misery get cranked up so considerably that a part of me thinks Geoffrey O’Brien got altogether too cute with the editing in an attempt to give it some finesse.
Alas, there’s no finesse to be found here, which is a shame since the script, also by Ayer, could have really used some. It’s a thoughtless parade of flat-pack genre storytelling, assembled with the confidence of a dad who insists he doesn’t need the instructions and ends up with a bunch of spare screws he claims not to have needed. Next thing you know whatever he built has collapsed. There’s no wonder that the performers, even the talented ones, aren’t putting too much into their roles – there’s only so much effort that this rickety structure could support.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.