How do you cast Simon Pegg in a movie and then do virtually nothing with him? In the Australian film Kill Me Three Times, Pegg plays a ruthless, expert hit man — which seems like a stretch until you realize that part of the actor’s comic repertoire has been to portray characters seemingly ill-suited for him. (See also: Hot Fuzz.) But Kill Me Three Times doesn’t really toy with that dissonance; it doesn’t really toy with anything. It’s a comedy thriller whose main joke appears to be that it’s playing everything straight, so that bits of humor are ultimately punctuated with people getting their heads blown off or whatever.
That would all be fine — after all, Quentin Tarantino does something similar, to great effect — except that this twisty-turny film seems too enamored of its twisty-turniness to give us characters we can latch onto. Told in an interlocking three-part flashback structure (hello again, Quentin), the setup has Pegg’s Charlie Wolfe being hired to kill a bar owner’s wife (Alice Braga) only to discover that the woman’s sister-in-law (Theresa Palmer) and her dimwitted dentist husband (Sullivan Stapleton) are also trying to kill her as part of some elaborate insurance scam. So Charlie spends much of the first part of the film just watching the others through binoculars and making vaguely bewildered expressions, as the victim turns out to be a little more difficult to kill than planned — the dentist keeps bungling matters, his wife keeps yelling at him, etc. Then we flash back to reveal exactly why anyone was trying to kill this woman in the first place. It’s really not that interesting or witty or surprising.
If the twists were better, if the humor were funnier (I laughed precisely once — when we cut away to the ruthless assassin’s handy car GPS), might Kill Me Three Times have worked? I’m not entirely convinced, because the film has a deeper problem: It seems thoroughly uninterested in giving us anyone to care about. These characters exist as plot elements — pieces to be moved around on a board, which is fine if you’re playing a game but not so fine when you’re trying to engage us in a story. The film could have chosen to reveal something, anything about these people as the plot developed. It really wouldn’t have taken much. (Again, one can point to Tarantino, whose characters’ chitchat about foot massages and European burgers and piercings and kung-fu movies does more than just provide laughs, it lets us spend time with these people — so that when they’re threatened or even killed, the danger has a certain immediacy.)
But to be fair, Kill Me Three Times isn’t really trying to be a banter-y, hip thriller à la Pulp Fiction or True Romance. For all its sunny, pleasant settings, it seems to have a noir heart. And it might have worked in a Blood Simple/Red Rock West vein if it had given us a character or relationship to latch onto, so that we experienced the thriller through the eyes of someone caught up in it. As it is, the only character we have mild stirrings for is Braga’s much-abused victim figure, simply because she’s going through the tortures of the damned — but she remains frustratingly opaque. Instead, the film privileges the point of view of Pegg’s killer character, about whom we know nothing and who, again, I note, is asked to do virtually nothing for much of the first half of the film. Kill Me Three Times is that most noxious of cinematic phenomena — a film that’s too cool to care. So why should we care back?