You wouldn’t know it from the marketing campaign, but Shia LaBeouf is not the star of “The Tax Collector.” And for once, the actor isn’t the most interesting thing about a film he’s involved with — this despite the fact that he’s attracted a lot of press over getting his chest tattooed for the part. Ironically, there’s just one scene — our last view of LaBeouf — in which audiences can spot the ink. Otherwise, “Creeper” (a nickname now permanently inked on his abdomen) comes across more menacing in the neatly pressed oxford shirt, necktie and banker’s vest he wears for most of the latest South Los Angeles crime saga from writer-director David Ayer, which is bloody, barely coherent and about as fun as having your face dragged across asphalt from a moving SUV.
The real star of “The Tax Collector” — the gangland “tax collector” of the film’s title — is relative newcomer Bobby Soto. Picture a youthful Che Guevara with a tidy metrosexual beard, and you’ll understand what Ayer saw in the actor, who could easily go on to become a marquee name. For now, he comes across as just another pretty face posturing as the tough guy. David also has a tattoo — one that reads “familia” in all-caps across his pecs — a none-too-subtle clue that in his personal hierarchy of importance, family takes precedence over his unconventional day job.
Like his father before him, David collects protection money from all the Latino street gangs in South Central, although he tends to delegate the more unpleasant enforcement duties to his cold-blooded lieutenant Creeper. That makes total sense, since Soto possesses none of LaBeouf’s feral, anything-can-happen energy, whereas his co-star brings the coiled-sociopath potential of a werewolf one sliver away from erupting into full-moon berserker mode. Nervous thugs need only stare into Creeper’s eyes to see how they will die — or at least, that seems to be the conceit of several violent cutscenes in this bizarrely edited action movie, which makes Ayer’s studio-reworked “Suicide Squad” seem downright elegant by comparison.
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For nearly two decades, this urban bard has been trading on the reputation he established with “Training Day.” Ayer didn’t direct that film (Antoine Fuqua did), but it was his script, and the one that put him on the map as a white dude with South Central street cred. Behind the camera, Ayer has continued to serve up L.A. crime stories, nearly all of which he’s told from the point of view of the police. Whether those characters are true-blue heroes (“End of Watch”) or rotten to the core (“Harsh Times”), the moral lines were clearly drawn according to who obeyed the law. Well, there are no cops in “The Tax Collector” — that is, none who get so much as a speaking role — and the only laws that matter are those set by the crime lords and cartels that run the inner-city neighborhoods where the film takes place.
Early reactions have labeled the film “racist,” and while it’s true that there are virtually no non-criminals in the movie, it’s small-minded to suggest that Ayer is implying that everyone in South Central is some kind of gangster, or that the way any of these characters talk — including the Chicano-accented mumblings of lone white boy LaBeouf, appropriated from those around him — represents all Latinos. (The movie doesn’t give Creeper an explicit backstory but offers enigmatic clues, like the cauliflower ears that suggest he’s taken one too many blows to the head, or the cheekbone scars the actor gave himself on Ayer’s WW2 tank movie “Fury.”) Few directors pay South L.A. any attention; let audiences decide where authenticity ends and exploitation begins.
When the movie introduces David, it’s via the respectable-looking family portrait that hangs above the mantel of his upper-middle-class home. He awakens beside his wife (Cinthya Carmona), eats breakfast with his family and heads off to “work,” where he’ll extort protection money out of a few low-level local “businessmen.” One can only imagine how he describes his job on “bring your father to school” day, and yet, there’s an unmistakable integrity to how he goes about it. In the tradition of “The Sopranos” and “Scarface,” “The Tax Collector” focuses on a subculture that sees crime as an alternate path to the American dream — an illicit workaround that (some) immigrants use to accelerate their pursuit of wealth and status.
Rather than glorifying the criminal behavior, Ayer looks for redeeming qualities in people who may feel forced into such an arrangement. When distinctions between “good guys” and “bad guys” are relative, Ayer suggests that some criminals are better than others. In one scene, David orders Creeper to stuff a pistol down the throat of a two-bit gangster who’s been holding out, but when he discovers that the guy’s been skimming to pay for his daughter’s leukemia treatments, David pardons the behavior and volunteers to cover the man’s share himself. In another, David defuses a dispute between his clients and a member of the Bloods, whose Black leader (Cle Sloan) calls him “a candle in the darkness.”
Of Creeper, Ayer wants us to believe the opposite. “I hear you’re the devil,” stammers someone. But the director doesn’t bother to develop the idea, since there’s a more powerful evil on the rise. The movie’s villain turns out to be an ambitious new crime boss (Mexican American rapper Conejo) whom Ayer rather ridiculously shows practicing Satanic rituals, including but not limited to a virgin sacrifice at his voodoo altar. There’s nothing ambiguous there: He’s the worst bad guy.
David takes his orders from his uncle Louis (George Lopez, in an intriguing if not entirely effective against-type casting gamble), who answers to a shadowy, incarcerated shot caller named Wizard. So, when David declines Conejo’s offer to switch sides just before a deadly coup, swearing allegiance to his family instead, the consequences get ugly in every way imaginable. Time for the gritty bloodbath “The Tax Collector” has been teasing all along, although the early tension doesn’t really work, and the sudden shift into all-out war feels more inept than engaging. A couple key characters die off camera, while oddly placed montages and even weirder cross-cutting experiments confuse the timeline to such a degree that we’re left with dual challenges: trying to care about what happens to David and trying to figure out what the hell is going on.