David Ayer Returns to the Mean Streets of L.A. With Clichéd and Hyper-Violent ‘The Tax Collector’

A number of questions come to mind while watching “The Tax Collector.” Some of those questions can be in the style of, what is this about? Is the director insane? It is easy to ponder these inquiries while watching the film, because it becomes so confused with itself that the mind inevitably wanders. It is the latest opus of violent mayhem from David Ayer, who continuously returns to themes that obsess him like Mexican street gang culture, tough men, and the way human anatomy looks when blown apart. Artists are, of course, expected to have obsessions, but in Ayer’s new movie they run lazily amok.

Bobby Soto plays David, a Mexican gangster in (we presume) East Los Angeles, who looks like every other stereotypical East L.A. movie gangster. He’s a “tax collector” for his uncle, a thug running an auto shop named Uncle Louis (played bizarrely by George Lopez). David’s partner in collecting taxes from local dealers is Creeper (Shia LaBeouf), who always wears a suit and is “crazy.” When David’s astute wife informs him his latest haul is $20,000 short, he goes to find out why. It turns out there’s a new gangster in town, Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin), who talks like he’s watched “Game of Thrones,” making allusions to kings and peasants. When David refuses to kiss his shiny ring and work for him, Conejo declares war. Why? He’s a movie gangster, he wants to run the city, or East L.A., or whatever corner he needs to be the top boss. One wonders why it’s worth the effort, considering everyone appears to answer to a mysterious top gangster sitting in jail, always lit in shadow, called Wizard.

It’s simply not worth getting too deep into what Ayer is trying to do with “The Tax Collector,” because the plot becomes nearly incomprehensible before the first act is even done. Ayer’s screenplay is a parade of clichés, both ethnic and cinematic. Since his days writing notable films like “Training Day,” then directing violent romps like “Harsh Times” and the “Sabotage,” Ayer is endlessly fascinated by the look and tone of Mexican gang life. Maybe it’s the ferocity of the tattoos, or the macho codes of conduct, but for Ayers it’s been a convenient tool for years. The only time it worked was in “End of Watch,” his best film to date. Ayers never goes beyond clichés however, none of these people feel or sound real. Their dialogue is a hilarious mishmash of ridiculous statements (“if you put the hand to the heart, it turns black”). Conejo has a strange habit of starting a sentence in English before finishing it in Spanish, not in the famous “Spanglish” style Chicanos actually use, but as a weird, calculated device (“they knew the reglas!”). Even worse, there is not a redeeming quality to any of the Latinx characters. A clueless suburbanite might stumble across this movie and be terrified of ever even driving through Whittier Blvd. Women are hollow and obnoxious, or sexy thugs who have nothing to say but one liners before delivering a message on a Satanic card to David. Ayers can even get lazy with the classic mob life perks. David’s wife calls, annoyed that she is at a high-end store to get a Quinceañera dress for their daughter, but the shop is closing soon and “the Mexican Kardashians” are taking up the shop attendant’s attention. David takes care of it. He arrives, whispers into the ear of the other family’s own, cowboy hat-wearing dad, and off they go, terrified. Not the most impressive way to flex your Godfather muscle, even if you’re just a mere tax collector. 

This is also a spiritual kind of blood and bullets epic. Shia LeBeouf, delivering the better bad performance in a bad movie, ponders how he is a product of evolution, which explains why he likes to kill people. David is convinced God is watching over him as a spiritual protection against the “Satanic” Conejo, even though they are both involved in extortion, running drugs and threatening minions with death. After enduring a night of shootouts and butchery, another gangster assures a doubtful David that, “you’re a king. It wants you.” What “it” is never gets clarification, although we can assume it just means trafficking. The leader of a local Black gang assures David, “you are a candle in the darkness,” when it comes to the example he sets in the streets, before joining him on a revenge rampage.

“The Tax Collector” descends into a confusing third act with choppy editing, including a scene where someone walks into a hotel room, washes their hands, turns and then realizes there has been a body there all along. This is also when Ayers goes berserk, into the kind of violent territory he has dabbled in better films like his World War II movie, “Fury.” Someone’s head will get kicked in until blood erupts, someone’s face will be pressed out of a van into the speeding street and decapitated heads find their way into coolers. And to top it off, Ayers has at least one scene aping “The Matrix,” with characters shooting up a place in slow motion as drinks explode and bullets ballet through bodies, it comes virtually out of nowhere. David also demolishes someone’s face with a sink, with each blow proclaiming what he would do “for family.” What indeed is going on inside David Ayer?

Violence and viscera are fine, in a movie that makes sense and has purpose. “The Tax Collector” feels like a rushed job, filmed without any style or coherence, meant to just splash around clichés to attract a crowd expecting a typical genre experience. There is also something sad in the overflow of rehashed Latinx stereotypes. A show like “Vida” may not have loads of violence, but it’s true to life in East L.A., in all its pleasant and unpleasant shades. “The Tax Collector” thinks it has an edge, but comes up short.

The Tax Collector” releases Aug. 7 on VOD.