Thursday, February 25, 2021

Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Tax Collector’ on Hulu, Where Family Ties Take A Backseat To Wrenching Violence On The Streets Of Los Angeles

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Two heavies run a collection racket for an incarcerated gangland king in The Tax Collector (Hulu), but they face a reckoning when a violent new foe comes to town. According to reports, the garish tattoos heavy #2 Shia LaBeouf sports are all too real.

THE TAX COLLECTOR: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

The Gist: David (Bobby Soto) and Creeper (Shia LaBeouf) are enforcers for a Mexican mafia gang lord named Wizard who operates his empire on the streets of Los Angeles from behind bars at the penitentiary.

Creeper, on the other hand, is an amoral death machine, loyal to David, his keto diet, and not much else. We ride along with these two as they make their rounds, visiting assorted small-timers, collecting cash, and riffing on a life lived amongst gangsters and thieves.

Hierarchies of fear that frame this world. David delights in reducing low-level gang captains to quivering mush with threats and intimidation. (“Every gang in LA has to pay their fucking taxes.”) But whenever Wizard calls, David cowers in palpable fear. Everyone in this underworld ecosystem survives by eating what’s below. To punch up is to greet death. Still, there’s trouble in the higher echelons. Wizard’s mafia empire is locked in a perpetual struggle for power with the Mexican drug cartels, and when the murderous Conejo (Jose “Conejo” Martin) is sent from the south to seriously disrupt the status quo, David and Creeper get caught in the meat grinder.

Photo: RLJE Films

What Movies Will It Remind You Of? With The Tax Collector, writer-director David Ayer is once again cruising the streets of Los Angeles, the same environment he explored with End of Watch (2012), a film with a more superior mix of male bonding, Chicano and gangland subcultures, and profuse gunplay.

He barks lines like “Of course he’s scared! You guys look like fucking animals!” and in one interesting scene, conducts a conversation with David concerning sensitive underworld shenanigans completely in wordless code-speak, the meaning of their deliberate hand gestures appearing in subtitles.

Memorable Dialogue: When one gang’s tax load is light, Creeper and David go to the key holder’s house to lean on him. Guns are drawn. Threats are made. But when the man stammers that he kept the cash to care for his young daughter with leukemia, David shows him mercy. Creeper is a little disgusted with his friend and partner. “That’s your fucking problem right there,” he says later. “You can’t compartmentalize. You’re taxing 43 different street gangs. That’s thousands of dudes in the most violent, fucked-up subculture in Los Angeles, and you want to play the fucking pope out here.”

Our Take: In The Tax Collector, Ayer takes pains to present the bonds of la familia as a lever of hope against the specter of death and destruction that is a constant presence in his characters’ lives. Religion, too, and the power of belief, is presented as a core concept not only for David, a Roman Catholic, but also the villainous Conejo, who practices a form of Santa Muerte cult worship.

(“You can’t surrender to Conejo,” David says. “He’s demonic; I feel it.”) But it’s a more earthly hierarchy that truly guides them. “The big homeys” — Wizard calling the shots via cellphone from prison, and Conejo’s Jalisco cartel overlords, who unleash him in a play for control of the streets and drug corners of Los Angeles. These are the powers that propagate the violence that ultimately consumes The Tax Collector, and Ayers doesn’t invest enough time in those larger notions of family and piousness to counteract all of the carnage. Ancillary characters such as David’s brash sister Delia aren’t given enough to make a real impression (though Noemi Gonzalez does her damndest), and even LaBeouf’s Creeper, loyal to the end, is ultimately just another piston in the film’s barbarity motor. The Tax Collector features confident camera work, one propulsively-edited gun battle, and solid work from its actors, at least for what they’re given. But its only real concern is to send them into battle, and make them bleed.

Our Call: STREAM IT, but only if you’re prepared for its portrayal of LA as a death’s head playground of churning street violence and malevolent bloodshed.

Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland.

Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges

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