Screen violence doesn’t get much cheaper or more gratuitous than in “Kill Me Three Times,” a sun-drenched, blood-spattered Australian thriller that seems to fancy itself the first movie ever to feature characters shot to death at point-blank range. Playing like a beach bum’s “Double Indemnity” with a few sub-Tarantino chronological backflips thrown in, director Kriv Stenders’ tiresome tale of scheming adulterers, cruel spouses and one bemused hitman (Simon Pegg) feels like poser noir all the way, never achieving the darkly comic flair or freshness of style needed to sell its fatalistic twists. Although picked up for Stateside release by Magnolia, “Three” will add up to very little commercially.
From the moment professional assassin Charlie Wolfe (Pegg) opens the movie with a loud “Fuck me!” and proceeds to tell us how he came to meet his death on a gorgeous stretch of beach in Eagles Nest, Australia, you can feel Stenders and screenwriter James McFarland straining to lend their story as much rude personality and self-conscious attitude they can manage. Their chief gambit is a time-shuffling, nested-flashback structure that divides the story into three parts, with each new chapter clarifying and complicating the one prior. In theory, this means that nothing onscreen is exactly what it appears to be. But in practice, everything is more or less exactly what it appears to be, in part because each story development and stylistic decision feels like a borrowed move.
One of the movie’s better jokes is that Charlie, although certainly proficient at his job, isn’t the one who sets the cycle of carnage in motion, and indeed often finds himself on the periphery of the action. In the first chapter, he watches as capital-F femme fatale Lucy (Teresa Palmer) and her hapless physician husband, Nathan (Sullivan Stapleton), carry out the murder of Alice (Alice Braga), which they’ve carefully devised so as to look like an accident. In the next chapter, we glean more about their apparent motives, connected with the fact that Alice is having an affair with hunky auto mechanic Dylan (Luke Hemsworth), while trying to escape the clutches of her jealous, abusive husband, Jack (Callan Mulvey). There’s also a safe full of cash, a coveted insurance policy, and far too many loaded weapons for any of it to end well.
Eventually it’s revealed exactly how Charlie fits into these overheated machinations, which are neither developed in a way that would lure us into complicity with the characters, nor imbued with the kind of dark, disarming wit that would allow us to enjoy their venal behavior. Everything instead feels stilted and mechanical, rigged to get us from point Z to point A. And apart from the choice locations and d.p. Geoffrey Simpson’s sizzling widescreen compositions, which nicely capture the feel of a deceptive paradise where terrible things happen in broad daylight, the indifference of the storytelling is mirrored by a curious flatness in the filmmaking.
Johnny Klimek’s score recycles the same guitar motif endlessly, to the point where it seems to be operating independently of the action. Worse, the film is far too enamored of scenes in which blood gushes lovingly from gunshot wounds, drawn out in pornographic slo-mo. Before his 2011 commercial breakthrough with the family-friendly canine tale “Red Dog,” Stenders was no stranger to noirish thrillers (“Lucky Country,” “Boxing Day”), but in taking such unseemly delight in its own carnage, the director’s sixth feature feels both amateurish and adolescent, evincing none of the tonal control or finesse needed to elicit more than a yawn.
Between this and the recent “Hector and the Search for Happiness,” Pegg is clearly trying to expand his range beyond the Edgar Wright/Nick Frost collaborations that remain his cinematic sweet spot. He’s watchable enough here (as is the whole ensemble), but it never begins to make sense why this nimble comic talent was considered a good fit for such juiceless, mirthless material. No actor could enliven the bit where Charlie takes a phone call, says “Could you hang on one second?” and then casually executes the target cowering in front of him — a moment that, like so much else in “Kill Me Three Times,” expresses little more than easy contempt and invites much the same response.