The Australian crime caper Kill Me Three Times feels like a throwback to the country's "Ozploitation" genre films of the 1970s: bloody, low-budget romps through the commonwealth's seedier side. But in its half-hearted attempt to weave a tricky narrative structure, the film also has shades of the mid-'90s Pulp Fiction knockoffs that soured the landscape of bloody, low-budget romps. Director Kriv Stenders (Red Dog) and first-time screenwriter James McFarland have divided their tale of murder, infidelity, and insurance fraud into three distinct parts ("Kill Me Once," "Twice," etc.). They loop back on each other, so that we first see events unfold without explanation, and later get the context.
This twisty structure is the movie's hook, though after two decades of similar narrative games in cinema, the gambit feels overly familiar. The danger is that such a device will feel like an artificial means of stretching out a thin story, instead of a mechanism that complements it in a satisfying way (example: Samuel L. Jackson's concluding speech in Pulp Fiction resonates more strongly because we already know, chronologically, what happens next). Sadly, Kill Me Three Times is the former more than the latter case. When all is said and done, the technique feels a bit desperate.
The movie's chief advantage is that it was filmed along the coast of Western Australia, allowing ample opportunities to admire the scenery with its jagged cliffs and lush wilderness. In between, there is the story, which involves a seedy hitman played by cult movie hero Simon Pegg, clad in leather jacket and horseshoe mustache. The hitman lies dying at a beach house in the opening scene, before flashing back to show how he entered the lives of two financially misbehaving dentists (Teresa Palmer and Sullivan Stapleton), an alcoholic rage-prone bar owner (Callan Mulvey), and the bar owner's wife (Alice Braga) who becomes everyone's primary target. Some of the interconnections between characters feel superfluous, including the way Braga's young woman, at a moment of extreme distress, winds up at the dentist's office in the first place.
Pegg, who begins the movie as the dispassionate observer and audience surrogate before taking center stage, is fun to watch even when he isn't given much to work with. He shows off his natural charisma while doing something as simple as playing with cigarettes. (The actor's Britishness, by the way, is explained by calling him a "tourist," despite the fact that he heads what appears to be a thriving private-eye business.) Pegg is surrounded by a cast of mostly Aussie ringers, including Palmer and Luke Hemsworth (brother to Chris and Liam), who can't seem to decide how seriously to take their roles.
Kill Me Three Times has elements that would seem to peg it (no pun intended) as a fun genre exercise, including pitch-black humor, corrupt law enforcement, a love of rural settings, and a desperately bloody climax. But the film isn't enough fun to recommend on its own terms, with its sloppy construction and so little in the way of stylistic flourishes. The pacing is way off: there's endless, needless footage of characters getting into cars and driving to new locations.
What's more, the story itself is frustrating, taking forever to communicate the stakes. That's part of the film's design, but without much incentive to follow the mystery, it's a design that can't quite work. Without the three-way punch of more panache, more Pegg, and more panoramic views of Australian landscapes, Three Times stops short of being a killer time.