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TAXMAN, THE(director/writer: Avi Nesher; screenwriter: Roger Berger; cinematographer: Jim Denault; editor: Alex Hall; cast: Joe Pantoliano (Al Benjamin), Wade Dominguez (Joseph Romero), Elizabeth Berkley (Nadia Rubakov), Michael Chiklis (Andre Rubakov), Robert Townsend (Peyton Cody), Casey Siemaszko (Abrasha Topolev); Runtime: 104; Phaedra Cinema; 1999)
“As good as paté from Zabars.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Taxman is a wonderfully played cynical, offbeat, low-key thriller with comic undertones, also exhibiting plenty of local atmosphere. It tells of a mysterious moneyman in the Russian community of Brighton Beach who is skimming tax money from his gas station operations, thereby defrauding New York State of millions of dollars in tax money. The film is also about the two unlikely pursuers of this scam, who develop an unethical relationship with the scam artist. They are scorned low-level government workers who go after these Mafia-type Russian mobsters, getting into a scenario that is way above their inept heads. They are a self-righteous New York State tax investigator Al Benjamin (Joe Pantoliano) and an artless rookie, Puerto Rican policeman, Joseph Romero (Wade Dominguez), whose main asset to the Brighton Beach department is that he speaks Russian.

The Israeli-born Avi Nesher co-wrote the screenplay with Roger Berger, who did the real-live tax investigation of this actual case. Nesher directed the film with a flare for comedy. The film looks closely at the two obsessive and forlorn workers who go against the grain of both their bureaucratic department’s archetypes, in the sense that they care about people and are willing to do more than what their job calls for. The Taxman is an attempt at remaking that dreaded occupation’s negative image, an image that has been maligned ever since biblical times. Al becomes someone who tries to do good, but is so blinded by gaining personal glory and not compromising that he ends up hurting those he is helping.

The two sleuths meet accidentally at the crime scene of a Russian Mafia rub out of six employees of a small but growing gas station company called M.A.R.S. that the taxman is suspicious of, after investigating them for months without his bosses approval, trying to figure out how they are running a tax scam. Unfortunately, no one else cares.

Benjamin and Joseph are poorly thought of by their bosses. They both can’t help it that they have personalities that rub people the wrong way, even if they don’t mean to be annoying and are supposedly intelligent. They are still kept at the bottom-level of their jobs. Benjamin’s boss considers his persistence uncalled for even though he is a dedicated veteran investigator. The rookie Romero is asked to do the details in the department no one else wants, like guarding dead bodies to prevent their personal belongings from being stolen at a crime scene or he is used as the police’s errand boy to get coffee. He got high marks at the Police Academy in the academics, but did poorly on the gun range and can’t drive a car safely.

The fun is to see these two diverse outcasts get together and form an iron-clad Abbott and Costello-like partnership and stumble along on a case that no one else wants to touch with a ten-foot pole. They make headway by starting at the bottom of the chain of mobsters and doggedly get to meet the big shakers in the crime world of the exotic Russian community. They eventually find links with the Russian mobsters and a major American oil company.

The first helpful figure they meet is the Russian émigré Andre Rubakov (Michal Chiklis), who owns 16 gas stations and is a good boss to work for as he takes care of his workers in a paternal way. He is also a family man who has a beautiful and spirited daughter, Nadia (Elizabeth Berkley). Andre refuses to sell his gas stations to the mobster-operated M.A.R.S. company, that is tied in with the so-called ‘Cabbage’ — the Russian Big, whose silent partner is a big American oil company. He simply works his own scam by just not paying the authorities the taxes he owes. As a result of not selling his stations, he is gunned down at a Russian bathhouse, but survives. His more fatal outcome comes when he can’t stop the taxman from following him around to a family outing in a skating rink, arousing the suspicion of the Russian gang.

A reluctant prosecutor in the U.S. district court, Peyton Cody (Robert Townsend), decides to take the case presented by the two sleuths, which was turned down by every other prosecutor and the bosses in their own departments. He ascertains that the case could make newspaper headlines, which is good for his career as it involves a big oil company and he feels these two might have come up with something if they can get Andre to reveal who the “cabbage” is.

The film had up-and-down mood swings, ranging from the joyous Russian wedding reception for Nadia to the two sleuths’ frustrating car conversations about the case. The film’s highlight scene, was the action-packed mob hit by the two suicidal Chechnyan hitmen of the likable gas station owner and the chase by the taxman after one of the hitmen through the off-season beachfront properties of Coney Island.

In the end these two good citizens did all they could to get justice and the results were mixed, but better than what could be expected. The taxman’s reason for putting his life and career in jeopardy, is stated in his response to the cabbage man who tries unsuccessfully to bribe him: “The truth is, that people like you piss me off.”

The film had many endearing qualities: The cast was magnificent; the novice cop was an unforgettable character; the taxman was even more unforgettable; Elizabeth Berkley is a beautiful sight for sore eyes and her Russian accent was as good as paté from Zabars; and, the story, though thoroughly routine, was presented with a certain grittiness that elevated it to the level of those el trains running above the Brighton Beach Russian community.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”