Review: King Cobra

It’s difficult to find a reason for the film’s existence beyond a spoiled platform for James Franco’s ersatz boldness.

King Cobra
Photo: IFC Midnight

Justin Kelly’s King Cobra follows the rise of gay porn star Brent Corrigan (Garrett Clayton), né Sean Paul Lockhart, after he meets a producer, Stephen (Christian Slater), who runs a production company devoted to twink porn out of his home in Dallas Township, Pennsylvania. Brent’s climb to fame is derailed when his relationship to Stephen sours over a financial dispute, forcing him to leave Stephen’s house. But Brent finds solace, and renewed promises of a bright future in the porn industry, through two other producers, Joe (James Franco) and Harlow (Keegan Allen), a cartoonishly spornosexual couple with a penchant for fast sports cars and accruing debt. All would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that Stephen sneakily trademarked “Brent Corrigan” behind Brent’s back, keeping him from profiting off of his very own name, which is apparently the license one needs to instigate a bloodbath.

Apart from the murder of Bryan Kocis (who Slater’s Stephen is meant to embody), there doesn’t seem to be much out of the ordinary in Brent’s trajectory in the adult movie industry to merit this film. The unsustainable relationship between Brent and his sugar daddy is played out in a tone that never commits to a distinct genre bona fide, or searches beyond hackneyed narrative tropes. At first, one isn’t sure whether to take the characters seriously or see them as intentionally superficial, whether the drama is self-consciously ridiculing expectations about its themes or simply botching them.

Ultimately, one realizes that King Cobra is actually not delaying, or obscuring, some sort of conceptual twist that could potentially justify its initial lack of imagination. Instead, the film ends up resembling just another installment in the tradition of bad gay narratives that only see the light of day for their gayness, from the Eating Out series to Going Down in LA-LA Land.

“Gayness” as bait appears here in the form of Franco’s butch bottom. But even the actor’s no-holds-barred sex scenes are ruined by the inanity of the material. What could have been another of Franco’s hate-it-or-love-it attempts at provocation feels painfully anodyne, as he looks too in love with the idea of playing a gay escort to ever truly surrender to the role. His approach is so overdone it feels like one is watching the same drunken hyper-masculine frat guy he played in Goat. It also doesn’t help that Kelly is unable, or unwilling, to embrace the only thing that could have saved King Cobra: the cranking up of its B-movie aura to Bruce LaBruce-esque proportions.

Considering that the film takes place in the mid-aughts, the possibilities for a nostalgic playfulness around Web 1.0 pornography could have been plentiful. Instead, Kelly and co-writer D. Madison Savage soak their characters in a one-dimensional bathos devoid of any stylistic fun, feeding them trite lines (“You’re gonna be a star, I have a feeling”) in a silly premise involving jealousy and trademark, and timidly refrain from any form of critique or unapologetic devotion to the ridiculousness of the subject matter. Were it not for its (uninventive) sex scenes, King Cobra could have easily been a made-for-TV production. It’s difficult, in fact, to find a reason for the film’s existence beyond a spoiled platform for Franco’s ersatz boldness.

 Cast: Garrett Clayton, Christian Slater, Keegan Allen, James Franco, Alicia Silverstone, Molly Ringwald  Director: Justin Kelly  Screenwriter: Justin Kelly, D. Madison Savage  Distributor: IFC Midnight  Running Time: 91 min  Rating: NR  Year: 22016  Buy: Video

Diego Semerene

Diego Semerene is an assistant professor of queer and transgender media at the University of Amsterdam.

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