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David Ayer’s Dumb-but-Fun Movies Aren’t Much Fun Anymore

The man who cowrote ‘The Fast & the Furious’ is back with the VOD film ‘The Tax Collector,’ a Shia LeBouf vehicle without charm or coherence

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Whenever an actor transforms for a meaty role, it threatens to become the sole topic of conversation surrounding a movie. Christian Bale’s incredible—and incredibly different—transformations for The Machinist and Vice are etched into Method acting lore. Method god Daniel Day-Lewis got so into dressmaking while preparing for Phantom Thread that he announced he would retire from acting to become an actual dressmaker. (Would cop a DDL frock for my sister, I guess?) One upside of going this far for a performance is the accolades that come with it: Vice and Phantom Thread got their respective actors some well-earned Oscar nominations.

Then there’s the case of Shia LaBeouf and his extreme devotion to filmmaker David Ayer. While he’s starred in only two of Ayer’s movies—2014’s Fury and his latest, The Tax Collector—LaBeouf is the kind of emerging muse who’s willing to put his body on the line for nothing other than the love of the game (and, it seems, David Ayer). For Fury, LaBeouf cut his face and had one of his teeth removed; intense and over-the-top, but hey, there’s only so many times you get to hang out with Brad Pitt in a World War II tank. It also doesn’t hurt, in retrospect, that the Fury reviews were largely favorable.

But there’s no such warped logic you can use to justify LaBeouf’s wild commitment to, of all things, The Tax Collector. Putting aside the fact this film is a rather anonymous VOD release (out Friday on a screen near you!), it’s hard to rationalize not just getting a real tattoo for a role, but having the ink legitimately envelop your entire chest. Words can’t do this justice; see the results for yourself.

LaBeouf’s tatted-up chest is perhaps the only thing we’ll remember from a film that’s a wholly forgettable blend of crime clichés. Following two tax collectors, Bobby Soto’s David and LaBeouf’s Creeper, as they gather dues from dozens of gangs across Los Angeles for their boss, known as the Wizard—all while an old rival tries to take over the Wizard’s turf in predictably violent fashion—The Tax Collector is well-worn territory for Ayer. The filmmaker made a name for himself writing Training Day and cowriting The Fast and the Furious before going behind the camera for Harsh Times, Street Kings, End of Watch, and Sabotage—all of which focus on law enforcement, street gangs, or both. (He also likes setting many of his films in Los Angeles, where he lived as a teenager.)

More recently, though—and the reason that seeing his name attached to a project draws intrigue—Ayer has become known for his unspectacular pivot to big-budget filmmaking. Suicide Squad and Bright are unforgettable for all the wrong reasons: the former more for Jared Leto’s try-hard Joker pulling dumb pranks on cast members than for anything that happened on screen, the latter for casting Will Smith as a cop in a world where mythical creatures exist who utters the line “Fairy lives don’t matter.” (Smith didn’t exactly cover himself in glory in Suicide Squad, but at least his dialogue wasn’t that cringeworthy.)

For all the buzz leading into Suicide Squad, with some excellent trailers and the promise of a playful-yet-provocative setup, the film didn’t stray far from the DC Extended Universe’s bleak Zack Snyder–imposed ethos—Viola Davis’s glorious heat check notwithstanding. It seemed most of the film’s apparent edginess was reserved for promotional events, like when Ayer shouted “Fuck Marvel!” at the world premiere and immediately had to apologize. Bright, meanwhile, had a disgraced screenwriter who believed he created his own Star Wars when he really just made a buddy-cop movie in which one of the cops is Joel Edgerton in orc makeup ordering burritos. It’s telling that two films that ideally wouldn’t take themselves so seriously couldn’t even manage to just be … fun. Ayer only has to look at what’s become of the Fast & Furious franchise he had a part in creating to know that it doesn’t hurt to give viewers exactly what they want in a blockbuster.

The Tax Collector is an attempt by Ayer to go back to his roots, as it were, something more aligned with the films that allowed him to be considered for a superhero franchise in the first place. But even in the world of schlocky entertainment, which is a best-case scenario for enjoying an Ayer joint, The Tax Collector suffers from a self-serious tone and surprisingly slow pacing. It’s like watching a film student try to imitate the gritty underworld and occult-like imagery of Too Old to Die Young—especially the moment when the Wizard’s rival performs, I kid you not, a human sacrifice as a prelude to a gang war. Making matters worse is the controversy surrounding LaBeouf’s Creeper. The trailer for the film led to accusations that the character is a racist caricature; Ayer’s defenses on social media have been flimsy, at best. But I’ll leave it at this: We don’t have to live in a world where Shia LaBeouf says, “You say the word, I’ll push that bitch’s wig back.”

And then there’s the whole chest tattoo thing. For something touted as important enough that LaBeouf committed to inking his whole damn torso, it’s barely visible in the movie since he spends most of his screen time wearing a suit and, uh, collecting taxes. Creeper boasting about how much of a badass he is while—mild spoiler alert—never actually participating in any badass moments, is a letdown not unlike Jared Leto flexing about how much of a chaos agent he was on the set of Suicide Squad and then showing up for 15-odd minutes just to cackle around an elaborate assemblage of knives. Reducing LaBeouf’s character to all hype and no substance might’ve been subtly brilliant were The Tax Collector not so overly serious. Any jokes at Creeper’s expense went right over the movie’s head.

Coming on the heels of Suicide Squad and Bright, The Tax Collector makes it three straight certifiable misses for Ayer, who even on his best day feels like a poor man’s Antoine Fuqua (incidentally, the director of Ayer’s Training Day). But this considerable dip in form doesn’t appear to put Ayer at risk of being sent to director jail: Up until 2017 he was slated to direct Universal’s Scarface reboot (he dropped out of the project), and he’s currently set to remake The Dirty Dozen for Warner Bros. He’s even trying to feed off the success of the Snyder Cut movement and get Warners to release an #AyerCut of Suicide Squad. (Please, for the love of God, don’t encourage him.)

That’s a lot of unearned confidence for someone who hasn’t made a semi-decent movie since the Obama administration, but Hollywood has a way of letting certain—[clears throat] exclusively male—filmmakers fail upward. Ayer’s well within his rights to continue churning out action movies unabated, just as we can continue demanding better from a filmmaker whose output wasn’t always so underwhelming. But the longer Ayer’s streak of duds keeps running, the more LaBeouf’s Tax Collector chest-tattoo fiasco might start to feel like a metaphor for the director’s career: a bunch of hype with little to show for it.