As part of his preparation to play the role of a ruthless Los Angeles gangster named Creeper in writer-director David Ayer's crime thriller The Tax Collector, which unceremoniously blasts its way onto VOD today, Shia LaBeouf got an enormous, real chest tattoo that prominently displays his character's name. Yes, that means the former Transformers star has the word "creeper" written across his body, an act of professional dedication that falls in line with his other well-documented bursts of Method-y commitment, like getting a tooth removed while filming the WWII tank thriller Fury, which was also directed by Ayer. Apparently, the two bring out that level of intensity in one another.
Sadly, little of that "fuck it, let's get tattoos!" energy makes it on screen in The Tax Collector, a mostly bland street-level drama that struggles to meld its occasionally flashy genre flourishes and well-worn fatalistic musings about the drug trade into a narrative with real urgency. From the jump, the movie feels like a back-to-basics project for Ayer following a pair of perhaps ill-advised adventures in big-budget filmmaking, 2016's "twisted" DC villain team-up Suicide Squad and 2017's cops-and-orcs Netflix fantasy franchise-starter Bright. He's returned to his comfort zone here, both geographically and thematically, but there's a grim joylessness to the final product, like Ayer was conducting an audit of his own tics and obsessions.
You don't even see much of LaBeouf's fabled tattoo, which wouldn't be a big deal if the movie was as sharp as his character's Johnny Cash suits. The story actually centers around David (Bobby Soto), a family-man and drug-money-collector who works for a shadowy boss figure named Wizard, and the film pushes Creeper to the periphery as the action builds. Structurally, The Tax Collector is in line with earlier, grittier Ayer works, like the Oscar-winning Training Day, which he wrote the screenplay for, and his found-footage slice-of-life cop movie End of Watch.Like both those (much better) movies,The Tax Collectorfeatures a lot of scenes of men driving around and entering potentially dangerous rooms.
What happens in those rooms? Hand-offs, threats, and beat-downs. In the past, Ayer has shown a knack for writing these tense, close-quarters encounters, capturing the way a wayward glance or a stray comment can set off a violent series of events, and there are some funny, lived-in moments as David and Creeper go about their largely monotonous work. Some of the banter in the car about meditation, mindfulness, and Creeper's strict diet has a pleasurable pop to it. Similarly, a sequence at David's daughter's Quinceaera has a handful of choice line readings. When Ayer takes the pedal off the gas, allowing the actors to find a rhythm and create some intimacy, the movie is at its best.
But eventually, the assault rifles come out, human sacrifices are made, and the plot drives into a ditch as it seeks to shock and bewilder. There's an egregiously over-the-top villain named Conejo (played by Jose Conejo Martin), who wants to take over the drug trade in David's community, and his introduction leads to a series of kidnappings, tearful phone calls, and shoot-outs that feel more rote than frightening. (As you might imagine given the material and the controversy following the release of the trailer, the movie traffics in a number of cultural stereotypes that it rarely subverts or upends.) At various points, Ayer uses a cross-cutting editing technique that renders scenes almost incoherent, plugging intrusive flashbacks into moments that don't necessarily need them. As the body count rises, confusion sets in.
If you squint, you can see that Ayer is maybe reaching for the nuanced macho gravitas of Sam Peckinpah, a fellow chronicler of slow-motion shoot-outs and surprisingly warm moments of masculine friendship. With a movie like The Tax Collector, the levels are simply way off, and that leaves the talented cast -- including Soto, LaBeouf, and an underused George Lopez -- grasping for something to hold onto amidst all the pseudo-profundities and carnage. You wish they were in a better, less frantic thriller, one that allowed them more room to breathe. LaBeouf will walk away with a physical reminder of the movie on his body; for most viewers, it will be a temporary tattoo that you wash off right after the credits roll.
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