Slater and Franco Battle for Gay Porn Stardom in “King Cobra”

Director Justin Kelly is no stranger to New Queer Cinema. Like his mentor, Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk, Finding Forrester), Kelly managers to bring light to a subgroup of homosexuality that is subversive of its traditional understanding, without coming across as distasteful or disrespectful. What Van Sant did for politics in Milk, Kelly has done for the gay porn industry in King Cobra. Sure the film entertains, and tests the boundaries of taboo glamorization, but also handles the film’s real events with a candor and gravity one would expect from a procedural drama. King Cobra will surely excite as much as it will appall viewers. Audiences won’t quite know when to be thrilled, or uncomforted by the violence and subject matter at hand. It’s because of this cinematic dance that makes Kelly a master of his own craft, and King Cobra one of the best and most revitalizing films of the year.

Following the mixed response of 2015’s I Am Michael (James Franco, Zachary Quinto, Emma Roberts), King Cobra plays on the opposite end of its spectrum. Whereas I Am Michael depicts the rejection of homosexuality, King Cobra embraces sexuality with unscrupulous new heights. Also adapted from true events, the film centers on the 2007 murder of gay porn producer Bryan Kocis (penned Stephen and played by the creepily electrifying Christian Slater) by competing producers tagged Joe (James Franco) and Harlow (Keegan Allen of Pretty Little Liars fame) looking to get a cut from Sean Paul Lockhart’s (Garrett Clayton of Hairspray Live! fame) persona Brent Corrigan. Clayton makes a believable young pretty boy, who can easily venture the territory of being type-casted as such. Instead, Clayton owns the role of porn star and brings about a growing tenderness to Lockhart’s character as stakes rise and scenarios become dire. Something unexpected for a Disney star known for Teen Beach Movie, yet on par with Daniel Radcliffe’s attempt to show the world he was ready for adult roles post Harry Potter with his risky nude performance in Peter Shaffer’s play Equus. Fortunately for Clayton, he lands on both feet and is able to hold his own aside the incomparable Christian Slater.

Slater plays the founder of the titular production company, leading a dual life blinded by his suburban neighbors and sister Amy (a bit part played by Molly Ringwald). Slater’s demeanor is perfect for the role. Soft and scathing, Slater brings about a quality less invasive than his Mr. Robot character. Yet just as slimy as John du Pont (Steve Carell) in Foxcatcher. The barriers posed on Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is, however, upstaged and broken with that of Sean Clayton’s (Garrett Clayton) portrayal. Kelly is a modern day Steven Soderbergh, being the medium between a dark behind-the-scenes portrait like Behind the Candelabra and an embellishment like Magic Mike. The film plays to the commercial appeal of a I Love You Phillip Morris, throwing parts to well-known actors (Alicia Silverstone even plays a small part as the tryingly hip yet utterly unparsed mother) for bankability, but strikes a cord on romanticism similar to that of Dream Boy and Shelter. It’s not as grotesque as something like Pornography: A Thriller, but more vapid from the complexities of an Eyes Wide Shut or Undertow. It’s hard to place a finger on the film’s tone, because it falls into a league of it’s own. King Cobra takes chances, sometimes leaving itself perched high and at times falls below threshold, but ultimately comes out exquisitely on top.

Structure and story is the film’s piece de resistance. In whole, King Cobra is simply a well-crafted and written film. Where the Stephen-Sean story objectifies the film’s body, the Joe-Harlow subjective relationship really puts the meat on the bone. Acting almost as two separate vignettes, when both storylines intertwine, the actuality of the film’s truth is felt with great tension and awe. Which in part is due to well thought-out secondary characters and great performances by the actors who play them. James Franco’s Joe, a Christian preacher who comes to embrace his alternative sexuality, is a complete reversal from his character Michael Glatze in I am Michael. There he plays a gay activist who renounces homosexuality to become a conservative pastor. King Cobra is certainly in Franco’s wheelhouse of experimental filmmaking. In the vein of Lovelace, but disturbingly mixed with Every Thing Will Be Fine eerie tone. For every studio film Franco does (Pineapple Express, Eat Prey Love, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), he allows himself to stay relevant and commit to quirky character pieces like Spring Breakers, which in return gives us stellar performances in films like 127 Hours and Milk. He’s one of today’s best working actors, because he understands the studio system while pushing industry barriers. It truly takes a film like King Cobra, to get Franco’s next great performance. His best work is certainly still yet to come.

King Cobra’s breakout performance rest in the hands of Keegan Allen’s Harlow. What could be a throwaway role, instead, turns into a thematic device used as the driving catalyst for the film’s climax, and ultimately shifts the tone to crime procedural. Harlow is mysterious, and Kelly rewards the audience by breaking off his backstory into surprising pieces, as opposed to one huge setup in the first act. Harlow creates the boom needed to make King Cobra into not just another gay themed movie. He propels the film into a completely rewarding cinematic experience. Not to say Allen is the saving grace, because there are so many great moving parts to the film. But when looking at how every storyline and every character moves harmoniously with one another, it’s not hard to see how well oiled of a machine King Cobra truly and remarkably is.

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Christopher Clemente

Chris Clemente is a screenwriter and reviews the arts out of New York City. Over the years, he has contributed to such online publications as SoundonSight, Popoptiq, and NY Theatre Guide. When not glued to his laptop, you can find Chris walking around the NYC film festival circuits, like Tribeca and NYFF at Lincoln Center. He's a recent graduate of UCLA's Professional Screenwriting Program, and is currently working on his next feature. Along with writing, Chris has an extensive background in graphic and web design. Chris hosts the podcast 'Movie Lovers Podcast' with his wife Katherine, and guest reviews film on 'Legends TV' as part of the 'Unger the Radar' segment. You can also follow and contact Chris by visiting www.filmswewatched.com

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