Review by Mark Schwab
October 17th, 2016
The professional porn industry - gay and straight - is littered with awful and tragic stories behind its explicit screen. From DEEP THROAT star Linda Lovelace dying penniless in a ditch to gay porn star Joey Stefano overdosing in a cheap motel room at age 26. Director Justin Kelly and Co-producer/Star James Franco (re-teaming after I AM MICHAEL) decided to add to that list by dredging up the real life Bryan Kocis/Cobra Video murder in KING COBRA.
Based on the book "Cobra Killer - Gay Porn, Murder and the Manhunt to Bring the Killers to Justice", KING COBRA certainly has a lurid tale to tell. Young (and underage) Sean Paul Lockhart (Garrett Clayton) auditions for at-home porn producer Stephen (Christian Slater) and quickly captures his interest and lust. This was just at the dawn of easily available online porn and Stephen's "Cobra Video" website starts to rake in the traffic and paid downloads as soon as Sean Lockhart becomes Brent Corrigan - a trademarked star package to be exploited both monetarily and physically. Sean starts to see through the measly salary he gets paid through a bad contact and starts demanding more money or he walks.
Meanwhile, Director Kelly starts running another storyline of a debased male couple Joe and Harlow (Franco and Keegan Allen). They exemplify true L.A. Wannabe - big house, fancy cars, expensive tastes but all of it is leased or on credit, barely keeping it together through their own low-rent porn site and escorting. These two are very dysfunctional and damaged folks and it is just a matter of time before they set their sites on Corrigan to bring them a desperately needed big payday.
That's the main setup for the looming conflict. Sean a.k.a. "Brent" gets offered a ridiculous amount from Franco's "Viper Boyz" outfit but can't legally take it due to his contract with Slater's "Cobra Video". With Joe and Harlow's money problems accelerating (their red Viper gets repo'd right out of their driveway in broad daylight), extreme measures get put on the table.
All of the pieces are here to make this into a juicy cross of BOOGIE NIGHTS and WONDERLAND but it doesn't deliver on that promise as the narrative takes a back seat to surface details. It chugs along from scene to scene not sure of what it really wants to be - we don't learn much about the online porn industry, Sean Lockhart's journey and motivation are barely hinted at, the crime/police procedural barely registers....it just skims along, settling to give us plenty of flesh instead a fleshed-out screenplay. The performances here are all uniformly strong though; Franco is believably unhinged and chews the scenery well enough and Clayton nails down the naive kid with a very naughty streak itching to get out but getting in way over his head. It's Christian Slater, however, who really breaks out here though by being the only one who rises above his underwritten character to find moments of depth and even a touch of sympathy for his closeted, lonely porn producer hiding his desires in shame behind a camcorder.
KING COBRA has the feel of a movie that should have been longer given the material (it clocks in at just 90 minutes). There are hints of depth that quickly cut away to just another fawning angle of a nude male body to keep its target audience paying attention. For example, you might notice in the press materials that Molly Ringwald and Alicia Silverstone co-star here. That is technically true but their scenes are short and they seem to be acting in a different movie. It's too bad since Ringwald's scene with Slater is a good one and suggests that more than a little footage was left on the cutting room hard drive.
This tale of lust, porn and murder isn't a total failure and it won't bore you but still disappoints given the rich material that Justin Kelly had to work with here. If they ever remake this and give it to someone like Larry Clark (KIDS) to direct then we'll all need anti-venom for sure.