The world of porn has an abundance of interesting stories, although Hollywood has avoided going anywhere near this industry for years. Many of us enjoy the product that pornography companies have to offer, although most forget that there are real people behind the camera and performing in front of it. Independent filmmakers have the freedom to explore such narratives, although they're unlikely to be very marketable to a theatrical market. Writer/director Justin Kelly tackles one of the most well-known stories in the gay porn industry that resulted in stardom and murder.
Underage Sean Paul Lockhart (Garrett Clayton) entered the gay porn industry under the name Brent Corrigan. He became an overnight sensation, which sparked an interest from all corners of the field. When Corrigan becomes eager to get a bigger cut of the cash, he has a falling out with producer Stephen (Christian Slater). Meanwhile, a cash-strapped couple of rival producers (James Franco and Keegan Allen) are willing to free Corrigan from his contract by any means possible.
Fans of Brent Corrigan will immediately be intrigued to see a film adaptation of the young porn star's beginnings, and the story that shook the industry to its core. However, film festival followers who don't keep up with the gay porn scene may simply find it to be exploring something a bit different than what we're used to seeing from the typical crime drama. While the root of King Cobra gives an inside look at a topic that most filmmakers are too scared to tackle, Kelly's execution is far from unique. By the halfway point, it begins to feel more like a made-for-TV movie, except with a lot more anal sex. The screenplay hints at some intriguing directions, although he never truly pursues any of them to great length. This causes these scenes to feel insignificant, as a lazy focus is held on the competition between the producers, rather than dissecting Corrigan's entrance into the industry and what it resulted in.
However, writer/director Justin Kelly doesn't expect the audience to sit in absolute silence, as the craziness unfolds on screen. While some of the film is meant to be taken seriously, much of it is not. Humor is scattered throughout the picture, especially in the scenes featuring the competing producers at Viper Boys. The couple at the center of the company share ridiculous conversations that are often followed by brutal sex, which can only be responded to with a chuckle. Even so, their portrayals often feel cartoonish, which detracts from when Kelly wants the story to be taken seriously. Surprisingly, the sequences featuring Stephen are the most impactful, as he owns the most genuine moments that the feature has to offer. His relationship with Corrigan should have been the spotlight here, rather than trying to get a few cheap laughs out of the audience via the Viper Boys.
The third act is where King Cobra shows its teeth with the crime drama elements. Instead of instilling any sort of compelling drama, it seeks to deliver thrills. However, it doesn't succeed in its mission to get the audience on the edge of their seats. The screenplay doesn't manage to establish many meaningful stakes for Corrigan, which makes his journey feel much less urgent. This is especially where the film shows its made-for-TV qualities, as it attempts to capitalize on a series of unearned emotions and planted seeds of tension.
Despite an underwhelming screenplay, the cast does what they can with the roles. Garrett Clayton feels relatively believable as a young Brent Corrigan. While his emotional range leaves some to be desired from the ex-Disney star, he does enough to keep us convinced throughout. Christian Slater delivers the strongest performance of the film as Stephen. He places a solid amount of depth into the role that allows the first half to shine brighter than the second. James Franco and Keegan Allen are extremely over-the-top as producers Joe and Harlow. While the dialogue doesn't allow them to do much, Franco is especially cringe-worthy. He's clearly attempting to channel some of the craziness found in his Spring Breakers performance, but it just doesn't work here.
While it's occasionally sexy and sufficiently dark, writer/director Justin Kelly has delivered an disjointed crime drama that places its focus in all of the wrong places. He introduces some interesting character interactions and progressions, although none of it goes anywhere. The scenes between Stephen and Corrigan are the best segments that the film has to offer, yet much of the feature spends the running time on the less interesting narrative of Joe and Harlow. The only hints of soul and identity are completely overshadowed by made-for-TV crime material. King Cobra is a superficial crime drama that fails to embrace its strengths. Rent it.