The last time writer-director David Ayer made a film about two men driving around the streets of South Central Los Angeles, bonding in a violent environment that puts their lives at risk at every moment, it was 2012 and the men were the LAPD officers played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena in “End of Watch.” “The Tax Collector,” Ayer’s new film, flips that premise on its head as it enlists Bobby Soto and Shia LaBeouf to play collectors for a gang lord who takes a cut of every illicit gang transaction in South Central.
But while “End of Watch” was a tense, tough thriller that created a believable bond between Gyllenhaal and Pena’s characters, “The Tax Collector” is wilder, messy and altogether less convincing. It trots out a lot of posturing and a lot of gang-movie clichés but flails instead of giving us much reason to care.
Ayer, a white man born in Minnesota who spent part of his teen years living in South Central, has been down these streets before. He explored the territory first in his script for “Training Day” and then in well-received films like “End of Watch,” “Harsh Times” and “Street Kings.” So there was reason to hope that “The Tax Collector” could be a return to his strengths after a detour to make the bigger budget “Suicide Squad” and the Netflix film “Bright,” which mixed LAPD cops with orcs and magic wands.
But “The Tax Collector” is not such much a return to form as an over-the-top exercise in melodramatic brutality. Soto plays David, who was born into a crime family and tries his hardest to keep his collection business separate from his life at home with his wife and children. “God allows me to walk into the darkness and come back into the light,” he tells his best friend and partner, Creeper (LaBeouf), because that’s the way people talk in this movie. “I have two worlds.”
Creeper, apparently, is the more volatile and unhinged member of this two-man collection agency. His cauliflower ears say he’s an ex-boxer, his speech patterns say he’s a white guy who wants to be a Mexican gangster, and the fact that LaBeouf is playing him automatically gives him a touch of crazy intensity. But while one local gang member tells him, “I heard you’re the devil,” we don’t really see that first-hand; he’s good at glowering, but that’s about it.
The story has made the rounds that LaBeouf had his entire torso tattooed for the role, though there’s some question about how much of the tattoo (which pays tribute to his parents) is real and how much was temporary. But Creeper spends almost the entire movie in a three-piece suit, and the only time he takes off his shirt there’s so much blood that we can’t really see the tattoo, which makes LaBeouf’s painful act of commitment a curious one.
It’s also beside the point, because what sinks “The Tax Collector” isn’t what’s on Creeper’s skin, but what comes out of his and David’s mouths. “We gonna kill anybody today?” says Creeper as he gets in the car to start their collection rounds. “I got f—ing nice shoes on.”
The opening stretch of the movie sets up David and Creeper as the collectors who strike fear into the 43 different street gangs who owe 30% of their take to a mysterious gang lord named Wizard. But when one client shorts them $200,000 and they show up ready to beat it out of him, they find a new gang lord, Conejo (Jose Martin), freshly arrived from Mexico to explain why the money wasn’t paid. “It’s not a mistake,” he says. “It’s a mother—ing earthquake.”
Conejo is the bad guy we hate, as opposed to the bad guys we either like or sympathize with. And the movie never misses an opportunity to underline his villainy: If the severed head in a cooler isn’t enough of a tipoff, the Satanic ritual and human sacrifice should do it. (Of course, the guy’s a pragmatic Satanist, praying, “Make me invisible to the government’s eye” before he goes out to slaughter people.)
Things get lurid once Conejo’s on the scene because the guy apparently has the ability to track everybody and kill anyone he wants. And that means that David has to step up his game, which he does with the help of his father’s gun (“it’s got a lot of murders on it,” he’s told) and some unlikely South Central allies led by yet another cliché-spewing gangster. “We got a chance to wash all our sins away on this one,” he says. “We’re going so far down the rabbit hole there might be no gettin’ back.”
The showdown is as over-the-top as the dialogue, although it’s easier to track the brutality than the geography in the big fights, which include several of the major deaths happening just off-screen. The action also regularly slows down for dramatic, flashback-laden epiphanies, though at this point you just want “The Tax Collector” to hurry up and kill everybody who needs killing.
RLJE Films is releasing “The Tax Collector” in theaters and digital on-demand on Aug. 7.