'Kill Me Three Times': Toronto Review

Geoffrey Simpson
Simon Pegg in "Kill Me Three Times"
Once will suffice, thanks

Simon Pegg plays a hitman set loose on a sleepy Australian beach town rife with betrayal and murder in Kriv Stenders' comedy thriller

Enough with the imitators. Riding a wave that has long since crested, Australian director Kriv StendersKill Me Three Times throws a lot of primo resources at a film that advertises its deadpan coolness like a banner out front of a parade. This derivative smoothie appears to have been made by putting Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and the Coen Brothers into a blender along with Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths. The brash result squanders a talented cast, sharp visuals and spectacular locations on a grisly trail of mayhem that rarely yields much mirth.

While its droll, dark humor more often reads as glib than clever, James McFarland’s screenplay has plenty of twisty potential. The bigger issue that robs this nasty neo-noir romp of its bite is the lack of fresh choices in Stenders’ direction. He’s coming off a major homegrown hit with Red Dog, a corny but sweet dollop of rough-hewn schmaltz about a lovable mutt bringing together the scrappy locals in an outback community. That success has obviously afforded Stenders the clout to attract top talent both in front of and behind the camera.

But everything here feels borrowed from readily identifiable sources. That starts with the bold retro-graphic titles and swingin’ surf rock soundtrack, full of fat guitar licks. It continues with the non-sequential storytelling, divided into three time-shifting chapters (“Kill Me Once,” etc.) of overlapping action that allow key developments to be covered from different perspectives. Add in overdressed sets that call attention to themselves, heightened performance styles, skewed framing and cartoon violence, with the camera lavishing glossy money-shot adoration on every ribbon of bloodshed that explodes whenever bullet meets flesh. What’s missing is wit.

In an opening voiceover, private detective and assassin-for-hire Charlie Wolfe (Simon Pegg) announces his astonishment at dying in a place like this. That would be Eagles Nest, Western Australia, a sleepy coastal hamlet with miles of pristine beaches, presented here with wild bushland, desert sands and red rock gorges all within reach. Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson turns this imposing natural setting into a dynamic canvas for sinister deeds, with a muscular shooting style and vivid embrace of color and light. But this ain’t no sun-kissed restful paradise.

McFarland and Stenders piece together the events that led to Charlie’s demise with puzzle-like dexterity, only gradually revealing who hired him.

The main players in a town whose other inhabitants are mostly kept offscreen are Nathan Webb (Sullivan Stapleton), a dentist in deep with gambling debt and manipulated by his ruthless receptionist wife Lucy (Teresa Palmer); wealthy bar owner Jack Taylor (Callan Mulvey), whose violent jealousy has pushed away his battered bride Alice (Alice Braga); her buff surfer-mechanic boyfriend Dylan (Luke Hemsworth), who is planning their escape together; and corrupt cop Bruce (a self-parodying Bryan Brown).

The humor derives mostly from Charlie finding himself not the expected executioner so much as the observer. He witnesses a series of attempted murders, scams, deceptions and acts of violent revenge, intervening with a blackmail scheme of his own when he spies a chance to double his fee.

There’s nothing wrong with McFarland’s plotting, which is more than sound enough to work, especially with Stenders and editor Jill Bilcock hustling the action along at a driving pace, accelerated by Johnny Klimek’s music. But Kill Me Three Times is too self-conscious to be anything much beyond smart-assy and tiresome.

Pegg’s cold-blooded killer, smirking with amusement at all the small-town villainy, is a less likable peg (sorry) for comic-strip carnage than everyone seems to think. And while the actors all have their moments, nobody gets much of a chance to develop a flavorful character in a film that tries too hard on every level.

Production companies: Parabolic Pictures, Stable Way Entertainment, in association with Feisty Dame Productions

Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Alice Braga, Teresa Palmer, Callan Mulvey, Luke Hemsworth, Bryan Brown, Simon Pegg

Director: Kriv Stenders

Screenwriter: James McFarland

Producers: Laurence Malkin, Share Stallings, Tania Chambers

Executive producers: Jed Weintrob, Jan Korbelin, Bryce Menzies, Ian Gibbins, Jack Drewe, Joan Peters, Aaron L. Gilbert, Alan Simpson

Director of photography: Geoffrey Simpson

Production designer: Clayton Jauncey

Costume designer: Terri Lamera

Music: Johnny Klimek

Editor: Jill Bilcock

Sales: WME, Cargo

No rating, 91 minutes.