The flagrantly generic films of David Ayer have rarely shied away from their Sam Peckinpah pretensions: antiheroes, dirty work, violence in slow-mo. While The Tax Collector, which marks his return to an overfamiliar Los Angeles milieu, does not suggest that Ayer has developed the moral contradictions of a macho auteur, it does imply that he at least has the attendant self-pity. Its depiction of a hardworking gangster (who shares Ayer’s first name) as he deals with enemies on his turf and a boss named Wizard who only cares about the money could be a mea culpa for Ayer’s critically drubbed excursions into micromanaged superhero franchising (Suicide Squad) and modernized Dungeons & Dragons fantasy (Bright). But this is the only ambiguity in a movie in which the villains commit ritual human sacrifice and the themes are literally spelled out in onscreen text: “Love, Honor, Loyalty, Family.”
Ayer appears to take this T-shirt slogan at face value, drawing out the radical insight that criminals can have friends and children over the film’s action-less, perambulatory first hour. The street tax collector of the title, David (Bobby Soto), has a happy family, a nice house, and a sociopathic partner named Creeper (Shia LaBeouf). It’s worth noting that LaBeouf’s performance is about as close as this wobbly film has to a redeeming facet: His continuing Method commitment to lesser macho material (as in Ayer’s Fury and Dito Montiel’s Man Down) is commendable, and the fact that he got a full chest tattoo to play a character who spends almost all of his screen time in a three-piece suit—with the tattoo visible only for a split second, and not clearly—is awesome.
Working for the largely unseen Wizard, David and Creeper eventually come up against Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin), a cartoonishly evil villain who has returned to Los Angeles after a long exile. He’s the one who performs the aforementioned human sacrifice with the help of a sexy female assassin in full body paint during a sequence that is somehow not the most incoherent moment in the movie. Instead, that distinction belongs to a scene toward the end in which David experiences flashbacks of a jiu-jitsu class while bashing a man’s head in with a toilet tank lid. Does The Tax Collector sound intriguingly bizarre? In actuality, it’s a tediously paced procedural about work-life balance in which suspense-free displays of hackneyed gangbanger signage are filled in with a few flashbacks that look like they were a cut from a much more exciting movie.
There are a handful of gruesome images in the final half-hour that may even shock those viewers who haven’t yet given up or fallen asleep. Subtlety is in short supply. We know the bland David is the good gangster because other characters keep saying so and because, like the Michael Peña character in Ayer’s End Of Watch, he has earned the respect of a member of the Bloods (actually played by the same actor), which in Ayer’s book is about as badass as it gets. When the equation is this simple—the honorable God-fearing gangster versus the Satanic cartel bogeyman—the idea that a character’s eventual turn to vengeance represents some kind of moral conflict is laughable.
The truth is, The Tax Collector could have probably used some more cryptic, wasteful artistic principles along the lines of LaBeouf’s performance. Because for the most part, it’s just the boring kind of bad that evinces sloppy and confused direction more than spectacular failure: awkward character introductions, corny dialogue, pacing issues. As with a number of Ayer films, its best claim to authenticity is that it depicts its subjects exactly as they would want to be depicted—that is, above mere mortals in their camaraderie and indifference to violence. If one is going to make something this cliché, though, they should at least try to do a good job.