With The Tax Collector, Ayer goes back to the South Central streets that previously served him so well in Harsh Times (which this could easily be a companion piece to) and End of Watch. And while that latter film — one of the best crime dramas of the previous decade — focused on two police officers dealing with L.A.’s criminal underbelly, this one approaches that milieu from the opposite angle, while also leaning into Ayer’s finesse with idiosyncratic ensembles. The “tax collector” of the title is David (Bobby Soto), who, along with friend and partner Creeper (Shia LaBeouf), extracts protection money from various gangs on behalf of the enigmatic “Wizard.”Despite the fact that David has a lovely wife (Cinthya Carmona) and children and lives in an impressively palatial home, one doesn’t need to have seen a ton of crime flicks to know that things probably won’t last that way for long. And indeed, this status quo is upended suddenly and violently when Wizard’s old rival Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin) returns to town with an eye on revenge, placing David in the position of having to make some hard choices and figure out what really matters to him.
Ayer, a one-time South Central resident himself, imbues The Tax Collector with a grimy reality that proves one of its strongest suits. Like the Sicario films or Netflix’s Narcos, there’s no sense here of crime as a lifestyle that’s particularly good for the soul even if it does offer some short-lived worldly pleasures. There’s also a window into the Chicano gang structure that’s both enlightening and unnerving, and the director should be applauded for his efforts at recruiting an ensemble that’s almost entirely populated by veteran and newcomer actors of color.
This ensemble includes noteworthy but brief appearances from Lana Parilla and Jimmy Smits, while comedian George Lopez makes a meal out of an against-type turn as David’s hardened criminal uncle. Lopez isn’t on screen for long, but his familiarity juxtaposed with the character he’s tasked with playing makes for an interesting mix. Another interesting casting choice from Ayer is also the one that’s gotten the most press: Shia LaBeouf. Not only is he the only non-POC member of the ensemble, he’s also arguably the most interesting part of the mix: A white guy who’s lived among Latinos all his life and tries to look and act and talk like them. (Shia LeBeouf got a full chest tattoo in furtherance of the role.)
Unfortunately, despite the marketing trying to make us think otherwise, Shia’s screen time is relatively slight. His is very much a supporting turn, and also unfortunate is that our central focus David isn’t a particularly engaging character in Creeper’s absence. Despite the best efforts of Soto (a likable actor who I hope to see more of in the future), the arc that has been sketched out for him as he navigates an increasingly dire set of circumstances feels rote and predictable. This all culminates in a third act reveal that is meant perhaps to reframe the narrative, but we’re so deadened by all the bullets and bloodshed beforehand that it doesn’t do much of anything at all.
The Tax Collector