THE TAX MAN BUMMETH

Un­der­achiev­ing gang­ster film in up­per bracket of gore and over­cooked plot­ting

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - RICHARD ROEPER rroeper@sun­times.com | @RichardERo­eper

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.

RLJE FILMS PHO­TOS

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.”

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