Movie Review: Another Ayer ride-along, this time with “The Tax Collector”

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You can’t blame screenwriter turned writer-director David Ayer for going back to his greatest hit whenever he’s in a pinch.

Hell, Howard Hawks wasn’t shy about repeating himself, again and again.

Ayer wrote “Training Day.” “End of Watch,” “Harsh Times,” even “Bright” were just variations on that “buddy picture” and “screen good guy turns villain” formula.

That’s all “The Tax Collector” is — an LA gang tale that’s advertised as a Shia LaBeouf thriller, but it isn’t. It’s a Bobby Soto star vehicle.

Soto (“The Quarry”) is the David, the title role family man, the guy who picks up protection money from 43 different gangs that run all the drugs, stolen goods and sex workers in their corner of LA.

“Creeper,” played by a tatted-up, buzzcut-with-shades Shia? He’s the muscle.

It is David’s family business. He’s the one who picks up the payoffs, hands it off to his courier-cousin Lupe (Chelsea Rendon) and makes the threats if the payment is lacking.

“If your tab’s short, go rob a bank! Rob your own mother!”

Backtalk or failure to pay means Creeper shows you his power drill, dons the white coveralls of a car painter, spreads the plastic sheeting on the floors and walls and spills a LOT of your blood on it.

David is also a peace keeper, interrupting “personal” beat-downs to remind this guy who caught that guy sneaking around with his girlfriend that “This ain’t Vietnam, Homey. We got BUSINESS” with the Lothario’s gang.

Opening scenes establish David as a family man, living large, with a beautiful wife (Cinthya Carmona) and two tweenage kids and a big house and a few cars, including a collectible one.

They make an effort for big family gatherings. He’s willing to apply a little pressure to score his niece her desired Quincenera dress from a reluctant retailer.

Ayer takes pains to make David a show-Catholic, debating theology and abortion with Creeper as they ride-along to various pickups. The family hugs, kisses and prays together. But it also preys together.

Uncle Louis (a painfully unconvincing George Lopez) is old school, running a garage/tire store that’s basically for money-laundering. We hear how David was born into the family gang business, put there by his father. And we see how all the other family members either look the other way at where the money comes from, or help with the books like David’s wife, Alexis.

Ayer paints a portrait of family values, vice, violence and venality which David, at some point, will recognize. All this corruption eats at the soul, or so you’d think.

First, though, there’s all this collecting and lots of Boys-n-the-Suburban banter between stops.

“You’re going to hell, man.”

“Yeah, I’m at peace with that.”

And then the interloper, a Satanist/Santeria-practicing monster from the past (Jose Conjeo Martin) shows up, fully-formed with a gang to back up his power grab.

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Soto  holds his own as a tough guy and a family guy. But LaBeouf is so much better at the banter thing, the swagger and dead-eyed killer look that one is reminded of the sort of spark and pop an actor needs to become a movie star. Soto may develop it. For now, he’s just leading man handsome with bit player charisma and stagecraft.

He is our “explainer,” our tour guide for this confusing world, and making out everything he says (an enunciation issue, not an accent one) is a chore.

But “The Tax Collector” fails on Ayer’s watch. The script is something of a muddle, with abrupt, illogical turns and too much time spent immersing us in Ayer’s version of LA Latinx culture, with a gang twist.

Yes, it’s “Scarface” with Mexican Americans, Latins filtering their traditions and tastes through American gaucherie. We get it.

Every so often, a line — of gangster-to-gangster flattery or what-not — makes you cringe.

“You’re a candle in the darkness!”

And the finale is a horror of violence, unexplained coincidences and divine (gang) intervention.

If you’re going to recycle “Training Day,” you’d best cast leads of equal skill, if not equal footing. Mixing up the formula is fine, but not if you lose track of what’s made it work every other time you’ve used it.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: apparently unrated, worth an “R” for graphic violence

Cast: Bobby Soto, Shia LaBeouf, Cinthya Carmona, Jose Conejo Martin and George Lopez.

Credits: Written and directed by David Ayer. An RLJE  release.

Running time: 1:36

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