Having dabbled in colorful, fantastical worlds such as the DC universe in his (since disowned) 2016 smash, Suicide Squad and the 2017 Netflix blockbuster, Bright, director David Ayer’s newest feature, The Tax Collector, is a return to the writer/director’s more familiar territory, particularly the gritty streets of Los Angeles. Although the ingredients are in place to suggest a critical comeback, The Tax Collector instead marks the worst film of Ayer’s career.
David (Bobby Soto) and Creeper (Shia LaBeouf) are two “tax collectors” working for a powerful, imprisoned drug lord that goes by “wizard”. Both David and Creeper live a good life, driving around South Central L.A. hustling low-life dealers and pushers for owed cash, and keeping 30% of all the profits they collect. However, that life is threatened when a new dealer comes to town, name “venom” and aims to take over their turf.
David Ayer, who propelled himself as a director of note with critically acclaimed hits like the 2012 cop drama, End of Watch, finds himself working within the same subject matter, but with none of the spark or creativity that made his earlier features memorable. This is a dull, meandering piece of work that features the worst of Ayer’s go-to cliches.
Films like End of Watch, Fury or even the underrated Street Kings feature an authenticity to their respective environments, resulting in gritty, realistic stories that come with some rich characters. In The Tax Collector, every character is painfully surface-level, save for maybe LaBeouf. Even the action sequences, one of Ayer’s biggest strengths, lack style and are perfunctory at best.
Playing the titular character, Bobby Soto makes for a dull lead, whose stiff performance certainly stems from a trite screenplay. Soto isn’t given a chance to infuse life into the role. “David” is such a nothing character, with no original personality traits — he’s portrayed as a loving family man with a beautiful wife (Cinthya Carmona, also in a thankless role) and two young children that holds high morals despite his criminal activity. It’s an uninteresting character that spends time with a much more interesting one in LaBeouf’s “creeper”.
Shia LaBeouf is generally commanding as the psychotic cholo-wannabe. Sporting a real (now famous) chest tattoo — that we see approx. 1 second of — a vaguely Hispanic accent and garish cauliflower ears, LaBeouf is always compelling on screen. However, the role is aggressively one-note, despite the actor’s best attempts at humanizing him. You want to know more about him, but Ayer never utilizes the character in a meaningful fashion. Unquestionably, the film is focused on the wrong character.
Running at just 95 minutes, The Tax Collector is tediously padded, yet severely thin. By the time the central conflict is introduced, Ayer has already spent two thirds of the runtime spinning his wheels with underdeveloped characters searching for any form of narrative. When the villain introduces himself to our leads with “I’m the future, and you’re the past”, can you really blame anyone for wanting to check out, especially after discovering the introduction occurs 50 minutes into a 95 minute film?
Everything about The Tax Collector feels like a cheap David Ayer knockoff, not anything from the man himself. The director lacks any passion that was so evident in his earlier, more unique work. Once the film reaches its eventual climax — perplexingly setting up a sequel — any hope for the spark that made David Ayer a filmmaker worth investing in is surely lost.