THE TAX MAN BUMMETH
Underachieving gangster film in upper bracket of gore and overcooked plotting
As the story goes, Dustin Hoffman deprived himself of sleep and hygiene for a prolonged period of time so he could get into character while filming “Marathon Man,” prompting his co-star Laurence Olivier to famously comment, “My dear boy, why don’t you try acting?”
That legendary tale came to mind when I read Shia LaBeouf actually got a massive and very real tattoo on his torso for his role in “The Tax Collector.” Watching the film, all I could think was: My dear boy, why didn’t you try henna?
I’m not sure any role in the history of movies would justify a lifelong ink commitment, but given LaBeouf actually has a supporting part in this film and his character known as Creeper spends about 90% of his onscreen time in tightfitting designer suits and “The Tax Collector” is an underachieving, exceedingly violent urban gangster film with a meandering storyline and a contrived final twist, it seems like a particularly short-sighted and unnecessary move.
“The Tax Collector” is one of those movies where the poster tells you what you’re in for. Let’s see, we’ve got a big explosion in the background, a giant skull front and center, two badass-looking dudes, automatic weapons, a scantily clad woman wielding machetes, smaller images of gunmen ... you get the idea. Definitely not a rom-com.
David Ayer, the talented writer of “Training Day” and director of actioners such as “End of Watch” (2012) and “Fury” (2014), is the writer-producer-director of “The Tax Collector,” and there’s no doubting his abilities to fashion slick and gritty thrillers that often transpire over a brief and bloody window of time. This go-round, we follow two bagmen, or “tax collectors,” for an unseen and seemingly omniscient Los Angeles crime lord known only as the Wizard. Bobby Soto does solid work as the level-headed David, who goes about his rounds collecting “taxes” for the Wizard with businesslike efficiency, believes in violence only as a last resort and maintains a precarious balance between his criminal activities and a warm and luxurious home life with his wife, Alexis (Cinthya Carmona), and their two adorable children.
LaBeouf is David’s sidekick, Creeper, a tightly wound bundle of nervous and borderline sociopathic energy who has the cauliflower ears of a former prize fighter, almost never takes off his sunglasses and walks into every room as if he’s expecting a fight and will be disappointed if one doesn’t materialize. (LaBeouf can be an electric presence, but his performance here comes across as mannered and self-centered; it feels as if he’s hitting all kinds of big acting notes at the expense of naturally interacting with his screen partners.)
“The Tax Collector” presents some intriguing setups in the well-paced early going, as David and Creeper find themselves in a number of dicey situations as they make their collections, while David also tends to a number of family matters, including the planning of an elaborate quinceanera celebration for his daughter. Comedian George Lopez turns in a strikingly good dramatic performance as David’s Uncle Louis, an old-school player who runs a thriving auto repair business but is also a lifelong criminal who has treated David like a son ever since David’s father was out of the picture. (In a nifty touch, when Louis and David discuss certain vital matters, they use sign language, in case Louis’ office is bugged or there’s a rat in the house.)
But once the Wizard’s former rival, Conejo (the Los Angeles rap artist Jose Conejo Martin) surfaces in L.A. and announces his intentions to wipe out the Wizard’s operation and take control of the city, “The Tax Collector” explodes into a gruesome orgy of violence and takes a deep and overwrought dive into matters of religion and faith, from the traditional (a family reciting the Lord’s Prayer) to the darkest of the dark, including an audacious ritual straight out of a Satanic horror movie.
After David spurns Conejo’s overtures to join his operation and Conejo becomes obsessed with taking down David and everyone he loves, David’s actions range from the terribly ill-conceived to the wildly implausible, especially coming from someone supposedly so seasoned and formidable in the criminal world. By the time the shootings and the stabbings and the beatings and the killings finally grind to a halt, “The Tax Collector” has long run out of dramatic steam.
Creeper (Shia LaBeouf, left) and David (Bobby Soto) bring in income for their crime-lord boss with businesslike efficiency in “The Tax Collector.”
Comedian George Lopez does a dramatic turn as a criminal and father figure for David in “The Tax Collector.”