King Cobra, directed by Justin Kelly, is a dark comedy based on a true story about the 2006 gay porn industry, and a gruesome crime that shocked that world. The cute, one-line comparison you’ll hear thrown around when discussing this movie is that it is a “gay Boogie Nights.” The comparison holds water, in that, like Boogie Nights, King Cobra takes a deep-dive into the porn industry, and explores similar tragicomic tones while there. And while it’s pretty unfair to compare any film to Boogie Nights and not be disappointed, King Cobra can stand on its own as a solid, unleashed, wild ride.
Garret Clayton plays Sean, a young man looking to remake himself as Brent Corrigan, porn star. Stephen (Christian Slater), a middle-aged producer and head of Cobra Video, discovers Brent. He offers Brent a room in his house, and in return, Brent agrees to star in Stephen’s videos. It becomes clear as the film progresses that Stephen’s interest in Brent goes beyond just wanting him to be in his videos. The other main players in the movie are an up-and-coming studio, The Viper Boyz, led by producer Joe (James Franco) and his own star, Harlow (Keegan Allen).
Cobra and The Viper Boyz represent polar opposites in the industry. When Stephen isn’t filming, he enjoys dinner with his sister’s family and listens to Chopin. When Joe and Harlow are off the clock, they work out, blast music, buy new cars and clothes, and rack up a lot of debt. It becomes clear, though, that both sides yearn for a bit of the lifestyle they don’t have. Stephen, mostly hoping to impress Brent, buys a new sports car for himself, craving to be part of the young, cool crowd. Joe and Harlow are desperate to be taken more seriously in the industry and are envious of the financial stability that someone like Stephen has. For his part, Brent finds himself somewhere in the middle of these groups, feeling the pull from both; likewise, both sides see him as a door into the life they want to have.
As the events of the movie put the two groups on a collision course, it becomes clear that while their lifestyles could not be more different, the core of these characters is pretty much the same. Under the veneer of its slick, vibrant filmmaking and non-stop synth score, King Cobra depicts characters that are trying, desperately, to feel comfortable with themselves, and it examines the power dynamics that emerge because of these feelings.
Everyone is running away from their past. Stephen never had a chance to be openly gay when he was younger, and is fearful of his family and neighbors finding out what he does; Joe comes from a fundamentalist Christian background with no room for the lifestyle he wants; Harlow is an abused, ex-military man who was rescued by Joe and is finally able to openly be himself; Brent wants to escape his boring life and do something fun, even if it is something his mother would not understand. These men are all broken and guarded, and their relationships are understandably difficult. Stephen desires to be wanted and understood, even if he has to force Brent into it. He’s an exploitative person, using his hospitality, money, contracts, and physical force to get what he wants from younger men. But because he is so desperate, he surrenders a lot of power to Brent, something Brent becomes keenly aware of. Stephen discovered Brent, but Brent’s success means that he no longer needs the handouts and place to stay that had given Stephen complete control.
On the flip side, Joe and Harlow are fully codependent on one another. Joe is the brains of the operation and uses this to get Harlow to do what he wants, but he knows that he is nothing without Harlow. He does whatever it takes to keep him happy. Through porn, the characters are able to obtain the freedom and community they long for, but this leaves them vulnerable in ways they hadn’t considered. Both relationships in the film are in equal parts beneficial and disastrous. Unfortunately, Kelly rarely takes enough time to truly consider these nuances, as the film is usually sprinting from one scene to another too rapidly for anything to resonate.
As far as the performances go, no one can hold a candle to James Franco, but to be fair, they hardly get the chance. While the ensemble is often required to be subtle, Franco oscillates wildly between different ends of the emotional spectrum. Joe is, in turn, happier, sadder, and angrier than the other characters; he’s almost completely unhinged. It’s like Franco’s performance in Spring Breakers, just turned up to another level. It’s a performance that fits the film perfectly. There are rarely any nuanced moments in the script, and so Franco doesn’t bother giving a nuanced performance. Instead, he gives a performance that manages to be louder than the relentless synth playing underneath his outbursts.
In some ways the success of the film is due entirely to the true story on which it is based. The story is so wild that any resulting film was guaranteed to be interesting, at the very least. These are real relationships with dynamics that are so powerful that they rise above the surface, despite being rushed. But at the same time, it would be unfair to ascribe all of the success to the true story or to James Franco going off the rails. It would be easy to take for granted how well the editing and the score and the camera movements sync up. It’s not anything that hasn’t been done before, but the entire film is visually solid. On top of that, Kelly manages to craft a few standout moments. As police lights color the screen, the film cuts back and forth between the characters looking longingly at one another as they are separated, and the music shifts to an electronically supplemented version of “Ave Maria” with lyrics of a song “Love is Forever” layered on top. It’s a moment of inspired filmmaking, the climax that the movie had been building to the whole time. The scene is the fallout of a bloody murder, but it’s also about two characters who have a sweet, loving, complicated relationship. Any missteps along the way seem less important when the film sticks its landing so well.