- - Thursday, April 9, 2015

“Kill Me Three Times” feels like a relic from the 1990s indie film scene — a dark, quirky comedy of violence and desire presented out of order and shot through with stylized irony.

It’s a pulpy thriller that harkens back to the days when it seemed as if every young filmmaker wanted to be Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers.

Its cinematic lineage, however, is probably best traced back, not to those filmmakers and their best works, but to a handful of their imitators — movies such as “Grosse Point Blank” and “2 Days in the Valley” that aimed, with some success, to capture the same vibe.

It’s a movie, in other words, that aspires to be a memorable knockoff. Sadly, it fails at even that.

Yes, the elements are all there: a sardonic, profanity-laced voice-over that opens the film; a nonlinear story structure; a spattering of blood-soaked violence, some of which is awkwardly played for laughs; a small cast of desperate, tightly wound characters chasing money and fighting for their lives and, perhaps, their souls.

But the movie itself has no pulse or personality. Not only are the characters uniformly unsympathetic, but they also are uninteresting. It’s not even entirely clear who, exactly, the movie is about.

Simon Pegg plays hit man Charlie Wolfe, a gun-for-hire with ill-advised facial hair and a sleek dark suit. It’s his profane voice-over that opens the movie; he’s been left for dead after a series of events that have yet to be explained.

But the movie quickly cuts back to tell a story in which Wolfe is little more than background observer: A couple working at a dentist’s office (Sullivan Stapleton and Teresa Palmer) are in dire financial straits, so they scheme to kill Alice Taylor (Alice Braga), a client who has come in for an appointment. Wolfe watches their plan unfold, although it’s explained why until later, when the movie hurries back even further into the past.

There we meet Alice’s husband Jack (Callan Mulvey) and her friend Dylan (Luke Hemsworth), encounter corrupt local cop Bruce Jones (Bryan Brown) and generally watch as things descend into bloody chaos when the characters begin to squabble over affairs, contract killer assignments and a safe full of cash. It’s all presented with a wry, self-amused tone and an idiosyncratically bleak sensibility, as if meant to provoke a slight chuckle about the horror and pointlessness of existence.

It’s the movie’s existence that deserves to be questioned: Everything feels forced or only half thought out.

Wolfe’s voice-over — which might have helped humanize the otherwise cold and unpleasant professional killer and locate him at the center of the movie — disappears after the first few moments. The nonlinear telling holds few interesting surprises. The quirky characters turn out to have little to define them; they are quirky in theory rather than quirky in practice. The third-act chaos is just a box-checking run-through of fitting punishments; it’s not nearly chaotic enough.

It’s not all bad: Mr. Pegg is engaging whenever he is given the opportunity. Geoffrey Simpson’s cinematography is crisp and considered. Mr. Brown’s small-town cop is pleasantly menacing on occasion. And the movie does induce a kind of nostalgia. It made me long for the days when a low-budget Tarantino knockoff might be pretty good.

TITLE: “Kill Me Three Times”

CREDITS: Directed by Kriv Stenders; screenplay by James McFarland

RATING: Rated R for violence, language, sexuality

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

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