This darkly comic factual drama hits all the right notes thanks to inspired turns from Christian Slater and James Franco.
Pitched somewhere between Boogie Nights and Spring Breakers – with the solemnity of the former and the bravado of the latter – Justin Kelly’s King Cobra pulls off its bloody mission with enough humour to make you forget the story is based on real events, while studiously avoiding the gratuitousness of those earlier pieces.
The action is set a decade ago, back when YouTube was still a humble start-up. A young porn star named Brent Corrigan (Garret Clayton) vows to turn the tables on his director and former lover, Bryan Kocis (Christian Slater), for trademarking his name and ripping him off. Kocis, a seemingly mild-mannered practitioner, is trapped in the closet, shooting and producing his lucrative King Cobra videos from the comfort of his white-picket fenced backyard. Unbeknown to Kocis, trouble lies not far away, in the form of low-rent porn-producing rivals, the Viper Boyz (James Franco and Keegan Allen), who want Brent all for themselves.
It’s not unusual to see Franco in this mode. What’s more surprising is that the star and co-producer – who pushed his director to have it ready for this year’s festival circuit – proves an unexpected highlight. Unlike Slater, who has admitted to having reservations about taking on a character like Kocis, Franco happily and regularly romps with the best of them on screen – and isn’t afraid to show it.
Disney favourite Clayton is another stand-out, delivering a believable approximation of Zac Efron-esque eye candy for fans, while boldly playing against type (and possibly, against studio wishes). He inhabits the pin-up pretty boy role of Brent superbly, shifting from green-eyed boy to semi-savvy star quicker than Slater’s Kocis can keep him amused with a new sports car.
Brent’s counterpoint, Harlow (Allen), is as damaged and dangerous as Brent is resolute. When the Viper Boyz’s plan to free the latter from his former contract becomes horrifically real, Harlow’s demons get the better of him – understandably so. It’s a brief, sobering moment in a film that’s more often than not focused on the hedonistic, even the vacuous. Life in the Valley is, at least here, reasonably predictable and one-dimensional.
It is Slater, though, who elevates the piece above being a potentially tacky tour through the dark underbelly of the porn industry – gay or otherwise. There’s a scene with him wearing a face pack, reflecting back at himself in the mirror, where he is all but lost for words. As with Hollywood and the pursuit of fame, porn is clearly a young person’s game. During that precious and fleeting moment, one feels his immeasurable pain at being unable to actually be himself in his own neighbourhood, while also losing sleep over his ability to keep his younger protégés content.
King Cobra screened in selection at Tribeca, and has proved an out-of-the-box highlight among more worthy and earnest contenders. While it clearly seeks to tackle its subject with a degree of gravitas and consideration, an infectious sense of playfulness is felt throughout, in creating something that feels fresh and, at times, dynamic. Slater hasn’t been this watchable in a long while – neither, for that matter, has Franco. It’s a film that manages to be feel authentic, intelligent and entertaining all at once. Which is not something that can be said for some of Franco’s other films.
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