There’s been a good deal of controversy surrounding writer/director David Ayer’s latest Los Angeles-based crime flick, “The Tax Collector,” which is now available on VOD and playing at drive-ins across the country.
The bulk of the dissension has involved whether Shia LaBeouf engaged in “brownface” portraying Creeper, an enforcer for the Mexican mafia. Watching the movie I can understand the hubbub – LaBeouf certainly looks and sounds like a cholo from the barrio and Creeper’s ethnicity is never addressed. Ayer, who came up in South-Central L.A., says LaBeouf (who grew up in the predominantly Hispanic Echo Park neighborhood) is, “a Jewish dude playing a white character.”
Last weekend I talked to my friend and customer, Danny (a Hispanic dude who’s from L.A.), while serving him beers at Traders Brewing Company. (Come see me in Pike Township on Indy’s northwest side!) He thanked me for recommending “The Peanut Butter Falcon” to him. (It’s one of my fave flicks of 2019 with LaBeouf’s performance being one of the best of the year IMHO.) Talk turned to “The Tax Collector” and the “brownface” controversy. Danny has no issues with a white cat playing a Hispanic cat, though he did make cracks about the choloification of Christian Bale in Ayer’s 2005 effort, “Harsh Times.” If Danny doesn’t have beef with LaBeouf being “Eli Wallach 2020 Edition,” I suppose I don’t either.
OK, now that we’ve addressed the elephant in the room, let’s talk about the movie itself … of which LaBeouf isn’t even the lead. That’d be Bobby Soto (he played Demián Bichir’s son in “A Better Life” and recently popped up in “The Quarry”) who stars as David. David’s the titular “Tax Collector.” He was born into a life of crime and works for his Uncle Louis (George Lopez – When did this dude turn into Mexican Paul Sorvino?) collecting protection payments alongside Creeper.
The first half of this flick plays like the gangster flip-side of the Ayer-scripted “Training Day.” It’s essentially a day in the life of these dudes making their collections. An inciting incident comes midway through the film in the form of Conejo (Conejo), a rival criminal who’s looking to elbow his way into the family business. (How would you like to play a violent, Devil-worshipping gangster who’s named after yourself? It’s like, “Hey, Alec Toombs, I wrote you this part as a pedophile that kicks puppies and he’s named Alec Toombs too! Cool, huh?”)
Conejo’s presence threatens the safety of David’s beautiful wife, Alexis (Cinthya Carmona), and their children. David and Creeper prepare for war. David even enlists the services of Bone (Cle Sloan, a former real deal Blood who’s appeared in much of Ayer’s work, i.e. “Street Kings,” “End of Watch” and “Bright”), who’s head of the movie Bloods.
Acting-wise I was most impressed by Sloan. He’s not in the movie much, but he brings a palpable decency to his role and the proceedings as a whole. Soto’s David has an air of respectability to him too. He’s a religious man who grapples with his grievous actions. Soto isn’t entirely convincing as a gangster. He’s a good-looking cat with a high voice … he seems more like the lost member of Menudo.
I don’t know what Ayer has on LaBeouf or if he simply has Rasputin-like mind control over him? LaBeouf felt it necessary to pull one of his teeth for his character in Ayer’s “Fury.” He got a lady tattooed across his full torso (which is only seen on screen for like a second and a half) like he’s Danny Trejo for “The Tax Collector.” This is serious business for what’s very much a supporting role. LaBeouf is OK as Creeper, but it’s nowhere near the level of craft on display in the one-two punch of “The Peanut Butter Falcon” and “Honey Boy” from last year.
I’m no Ayer hater. I love “End of Watch.” I really like “Fury.” I think “Bright” and “Suicide Squad” are better than they get credit for. (Will Smith and Joel Edgerton are really good in the former. Smith, Margot Robbie, Jay Hernandez and Viola Davis are really good in the latter.) Ayer’s pastiche is like t-shirts from Affliction, Ed Hardy and Tapout somehow growing sentient and collaborating to make movies. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it’s dumb.
With “The Tax Collector” I can say I didn’t hate, but it wasn’t great. I had to stifle laughter during serious scenes. Violence often occurs off-screen or is staged sloppily. This is a meal that’s simultaneously under and overcooked. You can’t always judge a movie by its poster – this one’s fucks BTW – but if LaBeouf is depicted brandishing a machine gun on the advertisement he oughta have one in the movie … budgetary and story restrictions be damned! That’d make us a little more even-stevens. Also, a little trigger discipline, gentlemen … y’all look like a coupla uppity Karens from St. Louis.