The Tax Collector (2020)

“I heard you’re the Devil.”

Bringing the same level of self-seriousness and false intimidation as a wannabe gangster sporting a nylon sleeve and a temporary tear drop tattoo to a backyard barbecue, The Tax Collector takes the “fake it till you make it” route in order to look the part without ensuring it was actually invited to the party in the first place. It’s heavy, dour, sour. Lifeless and lazy. The kind of limp movie that tries too hard to act tough because – according to stereotypes – it’ expected to be rough around the edges. Had it leaned any harder into over-exaggerating such murderous melodrama, The Tax Collector might have been destined to become a cult classic comedy. Alas, we’re left with something so much less.

Cruising and combing Los Angeles’ underbelly day and night are David (Bobby Soto) and his thin yet lethal heavy affectionately known as Creeper (Shia LaBeouf). David works under a crime lord who hails himself as “The Wizard”, briefly heard of phone calls and seen through shadowy glimpses in a cell. Their job is – or at least should be – relatively simple: frequent local gangs and collect a cut of their profits. After all, it ain’t called The Tax Collector for nothing. The film exists in a seedy, violent world though, turning David’s commitment to family sideways when the ruthless Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin) butts his way in, hellbent on taking what he feels is rightfully his. Things get ugly quickly and there’s no custodian to clean up the mess they make from aisle 1 through 12.

Despite having a broadly bland setup, The Tax Collector at least teases dramatic stakes and blood-spattered paths towards vengeance. It arrives at both, pretty lackadaisically, all while introducing the literal demonic beliefs of Conejo as he’s surrounded by occult images and a close coven of crazed women. He’s a cold-hearted, preposterously clichéd villain, and the absurdity of the character only further takes away from a film desperately searching for an anchor in reality. Conejo is underdevloped, David is far too mechanical, and the character of Creeper is far too outlandish. It should come as no surprise that LaBeouf commands the screen, but his performance (especially his voice, swerving in and out of Latino accents and his real tone) is only the most compelling because it’s the most dedicated, which also makes it the most confusing because it’s the most indecisive. The same can be said for The Tax Collector as a whole.

One of the few positive notes can be found in director David Ayer’s strength as a frontlines filmmaker; he knows how to create moments and put the audience between the crosshairs, and is at very his best when he shakes his well-worn formula up, which seems out of his comfort zone. But in The Tax Collector, as well as the majority of his directorial credits, his ability to create visceral moments of action is constantly undercut time and time again by the inauthentic surrounding stories and their total lack of credibility. The schlocky slow-motion, the aimless shootouts, and the last minute revelation don’t help a picture that feels so incredibly dated despite being so new. The Tax Collector seems to have been made on the conditions of prayer, and the response from the higher-ups is crickets, with the hopeful opening of money bags resulting in a red dye pack straight to the face. It gets what it deserves.

“You need Jesus homie.”

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

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