If the idea of James Franco and Christian Slater playing gay porn producers whose rivalry turns violent with the arrival of the hottest young star in the industry, then Justin Kelly’s King Cobra has your name written all over it, provided that you enjoy your true-crime thrillers with a healthy dose of camp. A dramatization of the real-life events that led to the murder of Cobra Video kingpin Bryan Kocis, the film plays a bit loose with the facts, but provides another opportunity for Franco to add another manic, over-the-top performance to his resume.
Convincing his mother (a barely used Alicia Silverstone) that he’s embarking on a paid film internship, Sean Lockhart (Garrett Clayton) steps off the bus into the middle of suburbia and is quickly whisked away to the nondescript residence owned by Stephen (Slater), where he’s soon sprawled on the basement couch in front of a video camera, smiling coyly as he slides a hand into his underwear. This is the birth of Sean’s alter ego, the overnight sensation Brent Corrigan, who would quickly rise to the top of the gay porn sales charts.
Across town, strapped-for-cash escorts Joe (Franco) and Harlow (Keegan Allen) are launching Viper Boyz, a porn site themed around ultra-macho stars who like hitting the gym and zooming around town in custom sports cars. Thanks to an absurdly lavish house and an escalating cocaine habit, Joe and Harlow are deep in debt, but they’ve hit upon a surefire way to solve their financial woes: shoot a film featuring Harlow and Brent together, which will instantly put the Viper Boyz on the map.
Unfortunately, Brent is under contract with Stephen, who has recently taken it upon himself to trademark the name – so while Sean Lockhart is welcome to shoot films with other producers if he chooses, Brent Corrigan belongs to Cobra. This revelation all but destroys both the personal and business relationship between Stephen and his young star, and Brent retaliates by unleashing a bombshell that threatens to ruin Stephen’s career – not to mention outing him and his secret lifestyle to the nosy suburban neighbors. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, and Joe and Harlow’s plan to resolve the contract dispute will have lasting effects for all parties involved.
Slater is the only actor here that seems committed to the part, and his multi-faceted portrayal of Stephen is one of King Cobra‘s highlights. Everyone else seems to be in caricature mode, as if they’re trying to convey the stereotypical idea of a gay porn star rather than create genuine characters that we can relate to and empathize with. Franco is practically on another planet, and although he never rockets into the stratosphere like his Spring Breakers role, it’s pretty damn close.
King Cobra often feels like it’s striving to be a combination of Boogie Nights, Spring Breakers and Party Monster, but never quite manages to blend those components successfully. There are moments of sweetness and sadness, such as Stephen allowing his personal feelings for Brent to take over as he begs to cross the line between business and pleasure, but we’re never given an opportunity to linger on these emotions for more than a few minutes at a time. And that’s too bad, because there’s a wealth of tragedy and poignancy in the real-life events which inspired the film, but Kelly seems far more concerned with exploring the campier nature of the subject matter instead of the darker side that would almost certainly have been more interesting.
The film has all the ingredients for a fascinating exploration of one of the most shocking events in the history of the porn industry, but director Justin Kelly opts for a more campy approach to the material that fails to satisfy.