Christina Applegate has a dynamite little stump speech as Veronica Corningstone in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy where she says “…I am good at three things: Fighting, screwing, and reading the news. I’ve already done one of those today, so what’s the other one gonna be? Huh?” Everyone has their three things, even filmmakers. With the new straight-to-VOD film The Tax Collector, the question must be asked what are the three things for director David Ayer. Which two has he already done and what’s the other going to be?
The Tax Collector feels like David Ayer’s 2 Samuel 1:27 moment for his current career. He elevated his settings and craft with Fury. He aimed beyond his grasp with Suicide Squad. The “mighty have fallen.” A guy like that is going to default to what he’s good at. That puts the stung and smeared David Ayer back to Los Angeles in a B-level movie and the three things he appears to be good at: 1) urban criminal underworlds, 2) seedy ethnic flavorings, and 3) spurts of graphic violence. These are his comfortable and dirty roots that brought forth Training Day, Dark Blue, Harsh Times, and End of Watch.
If The Tax Collector spoke for Ayer, the three things would be four things: love, honor, loyalty, family. Those are the human dynamics thrust into David Cueva, the ultra-connected and duty-bound man occupying the titular profession. Played by Bobby Soto (The Quarry and A Better Life), David is a Zacchaeus who answers to the off-screen and imprisoned crime lord The Wizard (Jimmy Smits, in an extended cameo) and does not have a Messiah insight to save him. Moreover, he’s flanked by Shia LeBeouf’s Creeper, a walking specter carrying a street reputation as the devil incarnate. His three-piece suit, dark sunglasses, tattoos, and a case of cauliflower ear filter the menace and present the battle-tested yet homeopathic psychopath with the itchiest trigger finger possible.
David’s anchors beyond his sharpened public image of power are a strong thread of decency and a heaping helping of storge love he has for his wife Alexis (Cinthya Carmona of Greenhouse Academy) and their children. In arguably the best scene of the movie, David demonstrates his heightened mettle when he brokers an intense exchange between his position and Bone, the leader of the Bloods gang, played by Ayer good luck charm Cle Sloan. The massive respect he earns gets him labeled “a candle in the darkness.” It’s a compelling trait that Bobby Soto exudes with strength when the material calls for it.
That’s all well and good for Soto and his David character in The Tax Collector, but all of that integrity means nothing when guns are pointed at you or the people you love. Any protection you think you have is never enough and your enemies will leverage that against you every damn time. As with all the crime movie tropes, get out while you’re ahead and everyone is still alive.
Spinning through the streets of Los Angeles in growling automobiles, Ayers drives us through this circle of hell dubbed a “paper route.” David and Creeper collect the debts and finances of 43 gangs with a network of clandestine communication, strict records, orchestrated handlers (like Chelsea Rendon’s Lupe), toted guns, and flaunted cash. What flickers from the candle turns into fanned flames when a powerful and crazed rival from Mexico named Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin) and his spooky femme fatale lieutenant Gata (Cheyenne Rae Hernandez) arrive to eliminate the Wizard’s hold on L.A. business.
Even with a slather of Hispanic sauce, this material in The Tax Collector is still burnt with gristle. Plenty of people enjoy that kind of splatter, and Ayer goes all out in that department by the time breaking points and climaxes are reached. The director employed an A-list cinematographer in Salvatore Totino (Everest, Spider-Man: Homecoming) to play with speeds, angles, and in-your-face intensity. The top-flight efforts of makeup head Cristina Waltz (Bright) and special effects makeup coordinator Stephanie A. Ford (Halloween) toss all the crimson one would want in the hail of fists and bullets. Splashiness of the properly pretty and upright ugly were never going to be shortcomings.
This whole salacious scene may be David Ayer’s bread-and-butter. The trouble is now it’s been done so many times and cut so many ways that it’s not pulpy or titillating anymore. While plenty game, LeBeouf is problematically miscast for representation. On a smaller scale, we’ve seen Ayer’s penchant for car-contained conversations and establishing transitions. We’ve seen the inked font choices on opening and closing credits. He may be one of the original writers of The Fast and the Furious, but calling on the aforementioned and belabored love, honor, loyalty, and family feels more like a retread instead of its own foundation and fixture. Too much of The Tax Collector lacks the higher gravity beyond the flashy fronts.