by Justin Lyons
2020 sure has been an interesting year for movies. We’ve missed our fair share of big releases, but here we are in September with a new film from David Ayer, a director who has seemingly taken nothing but criticism over the past half decade. Maybe some of that has been warranted, maybe some of it hasn’t, but here he stands with a new movie available for rent.
Ayer is re-teaming with Shia LaBeouf, whom he directed in one of the best performances of his career in 2014’s “Fury.” LaBeouf is past the point of only being recognized for the “Transformers” series. He’s truly one of the most gifted actors working right now, and this nice, little roll he’s found himself on since exiting Michael Bay’s billion dollar franchise has solidified him as a top tier talent.
He’s coming off a fantastic 2019 with “Honey Boy” and “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” so it was no surprise seeing him marketed as a co-lead in “The Tax Collector.” It was, however, a shock to see him in a supporting role in the film itself, and that’s the movie’s biggest problem.
It might be better said that the movie’s biggest problem is that none of the characters, aside from LaBeouf’s character, called Creeper, are very interesting. Each and every one is built upon a foundation that we’re familiar with, including those in other David Ayer movies. Their principles and motivations never sincerely stand out.
David, the main character played by Bobby Soto, drives around Los Angeles collecting a percentage of gang profits for his boss, a man called Wizard. He does it to protect and provide for his non-gang-affiliated family, who are in fact good. When Wizard’s ex-rival returns to town, dead set on taking over Los Angeles, David’s allegiances and strength are put to the test.
Again, we’ve seen that before, so viewing it again, in a mostly predictable manner that doesn’t make “The Tax Collector” stand out among memories of other gang movies and stories, doesn’t let it resonate. It never pushes for that emotional connection to the characters or story that I was looking for. Possibly the most unfortunate part is that there’s evidence of potential here. There is potential in these characters and in this world that makes me think there’s a decent movie in here somewhere, but it needed more time to give the characters the life and development they deserved.
The story itself also feels disjointed in an effort to develop the relationships with characters, even though those relationships don’t benefit from the sacrificing of story. Most beats, particularly toward the end of the film, seem to just happen without express purpose. There is a guiding narrative pushing David against the rival gang leader, but most events in the story don’t have the build up that I had hoped for. Things just kind of occur without any rhyme or reason. We have a character whom we’re supposed to immediately latch onto and a character whom we’re supposed to immediately hate, and none of the story beats ever allow the characters to breathe and change.
Each scene is also played at the highest possible level. Subtlety isn’t always a synonym for high quality, but constant high octane sequences never helped David’s character. Despite being a lover of action sequences, I found myself more intrigued by David’s moments with his family. He shows the struggle of balancing his roles as a protector and as a “tax collector,” but it’s never enough to round out the character.
It feels like Ayer is going through the motions, which is disappointing from a director who has obvious talent. He didn’t fall into the screenplay for “Training Day,” and he surely didn’t accidentally direct “Fury” and “End of Watch” with the skill and charisma of those films. That filmmaking talent is in there, but in going back to a story reminiscent of his earlier work, it appears he is recycling his own techniques. Even the visual look of the movie, which Ayer typically excels with, feels bland. He does pull a couple of visual tricks from his repertoire in flashbacks and high-intensity action sequences, but the flashbacks feel played out, and one specific moment of slow motion was enough to pull me out of a movie that appeared to go for gritty reality.
There are positives to take away from “The Tax Collector.” Again, Shia LaBeouf is immensely talented, and that shows in this film. Every single time he’s on-screen, it’s tough to look away. He does take a supporting role in the movie, but he steals the show right out of Bobby Soto’s hands. Some of that is due to the writing as Creeper is a far more compellingly written character than David, but LaBeouf commits so hard to every single word, and he’s an absolute blast to watch.
The scenes in which David and Creeper drive around Los Angeles, spewing mostly throwaway dialogue, are easily the most fun in the film. Creeper is the muscle of the duo, but I enjoyed his humanity. I have to credit LaBeouf because when Creeper is thinking, it’s easy to watch the wheels in his brain spin. He has these survival instincts, and he’s skilled with weapons and intimidation tactics, but he’s not a robot. He diets, meditates and wants to be included in David’s personal life.
“The Tax Collector” isn’t memorably bad. It’s just not memorable at all, and that is the most frustrating thing about the film. There is potential in the story, the characters and the story world, but it’s so easy to think of scenes that should have been cut in favor of scenes that should have been added. There’s also so much inspiration behind Creeper, but he’s not the focus of the film, which I think would have made the movie much more engaging.
There comes a certain point in the film where nothing is left to care about, and the story revisits a relationship that doesn’t feel earned. Had it spent more time developing that relationship, I might have been invested in the final act, but one short sequence and one small show of good faith wasn’t enough to make me believe that some of these characters would show the support they’re asked to show. Nevertheless, I’m happy to discuss Shia LaBeouf in a positive way. Maybe with that tattoo on his chest forever he’d be better suited in a similar role as a lead performer.
“The Tax Collector” is streaming now on Amazon.