Releasing quietly on VOD in the middle of the UK prestige film season after a Tribeca Festival premiere last year, and with subject matter that will likely turn a lot of people off, King Cobra is a film that is doomed to be overlooked. It’s unfortunate, because it’s a lean, effective thriller-comedy, covering a sad and strange true story about jealousy and delusion in the gay porn industry. With a wry sense of humour that doesn’t downplay the seriousness of its story, Justin Kelly’s follow-up to his rather stolid I Am Michael is a highly diverting way to spend 90 minutes, especially in the company of a firing-on-all-cylinders James Franco.
In 2007, gay porn producer Bryan Kocis (known as King Cobra in the industry) was murdered in his home by a rival producer, ostensibly over a contract dispute regarding one of Kocis’ former stars. Renamed Stephen in this telling of the story, Christian Slater plays this character with sympathy and insight without letting him off for his controlling behaviour and penchant for almost-underage men. These traits, manifesting themselves once rising star Sean Paul Lockhart/Brent Corrigan (Garrett Clayton) moves in with Stephen to shoot a series of films, are what land Stephen in so much trouble, driving the action in the film’s second half.
Initially, King Cobra is entirely Sean’s story. Renaming himself Brent and moving away from home, we see him lying to his mother (Alicia Silverstone) about interning at a movie studio before becoming an immediate hit in the porn world. Where some films would have gone down an entirely dark and seedy route with this story, Kelly provides a more nuanced take. Sean is clearly being exploited, but he wants for nothing, seems to genuinely enjoy his work, and manages to avoid the various addictions and STIs so inextricably intertwined with most sex work. It’s only once he finds out just how much of a profit Stephen is making off his work that problems start to bubble up.
Running at just 90 minutes, King Cobra finds plenty of space for character building in amongst a rapidly moving plot and various energetically directed sex scenes. This focus pays huge dividends in the final third of the film, especially with the duo that orchestrates Stephen’s murder, producers and escorts Harlow (Keegan Allen) and Joe (Franco). Their relationship, with Joe in a very controlling role, mirrors that of Stephen and Brent, and hammers home the theme of delusional love leading to possessiveness, which forces ever more drastic decisions.
When we first meet Harlow and Joe, it’s hard to imagine them pulling off a cold-blooded killing, even as they vigorously lift weights while yelling ‘no little bitches’. Yet, lines that at first seem throwaway start to reveal more and more about them and their capabilities, and by the time that Stephen is getting in the way of them paying off their debts through Sean’s videos, it becomes frighteningly obvious just how far they’re willing to go. Of course, this is helped hugely by a magnetic performance from James Franco.
As Joe, Franco is as livewire as he’s been since perhaps Spring Breakers, putting every ounce of his considerable charisma to hilarious, charming, and intimidating use. It’s a role where a gentle smirk can turn into violent rage with little to no provocation, and Franco manages to ground it in reality, ensuring that his menace is of a piece with the tone of the rest of the film. Unshowy and clear-eyed direction melds with a great score by Tim Kvasnosky, which is simultaneously foreboding and fittingly sleazy, to present us with a largely unfamiliar world and its very real dangers.
Clayton’s central performance takes a while to really click, and the opening 15 minutes are rather scattershot, but once King Cobra finds its footing, it starts to drag you along an irresistibly compelling path. Superbly paced and highly entertaining, it’s also a valuable reminder of how good James Franco can be when he’s in material that doesn’t take itself too seriously.