Justin Kelly’s lithe and hypnotically gripping new thriller King Cobra centres on the real-life 2007 murder of a gay porn producer.
At the heart of King Cobra is gay porn label Cobra Video, a one-man operation run with economic efficiency by the polite and professional Cobra (or Stephen to his family, and Christian Slater to you and me). Arriving for an audition with ‘Cobra’ is Sean (Garrett Clayton), a kid from San Diego who has come to make his mark on the industry and become a star, We watch as their professional and ‘not-so’ professional relationship blooms and inevitably sours.
In a parallel narrative, we’re introduced to the Viper Boys, a competing production duo consisting of Joe (James Franco) and Harlow (Keegan Allen), whose situation and mounting debts are becoming more and more desperate. Sean will eventually bring these worlds together in a tragically violent manner.
You could glibly describe King Cobra as Boogie Nights for the Mini-DV generation, as it shows the further democratisation of a once exclusive industry while concurrently charting the eventful rise of a sexually-gifted, doe-eyed naif. However King Cobra has more in common with Foxcatcher (or even Behind the Candelabra) in its depiction of a dangerous two-way manipulation between older professional and younger star. Also in a similar way to Foxcatcher, you spend most of the King Cobra waiting for the inevitable ‘bad thing to happen’, suspended in a grim state of impending doom.
At the heart of King Cobra are some incredibly committed performances guided with sure-handed direction by Justin Kelly (I am Michael). Stephen is played with absolute sympathy by Christian Slater, finally given a decent meaty role and returns a career best performance in kind. Just as engaging is Molly Ringwald, playing Stephen’s sister who lives a contrastingly ‘nice’ existence, and Keegan Allen as the vulnerable Viper Boy, Harlow, whose relationship with Franco’s Joe is complex but oddly touching. Your enjoyment of James Franco will largely depend on your general Franco tolerance. The Francosity here is about 8 out of a possible 10. Personally I love a little Franco meltdown, and he definitely provides King Cobra with the most blackly comic moments.
King Cobra is about control. Whether through conscious manipulation, emotional blackmail or actual written contracts, each character holds a powerful sway on the other, and this is the strength of the movie. Joe’s all-smothering love for Harlow, Stephen’s facilitating and eventual blocking of Sean’s progress, Sean’s easy manipulation of his fragile mother played by Alicia Silverstone. The film is incontrovertibly tied together by these emotional forces.
Satisfyingly nobody is straight-up ‘bad’. Even as Christian Slater screams at the departing Sean that he’ll tell his mother he’s a “whore” you can see the immediate regret in Slater’s eyes. Similarly when Joe becomes furious at Harlow (who Joe is pimping out) for being overly affectionate with a client, there’s no doubt that Joe is deeply in love with Harlow.
King Cobra’s weakness is perhaps tied to its true story background. Events play out in the final third without any real urgency or drama. Once [Spoiler Alert] Christian Slater isn’t ‘in it as much anymore’, King Cobra just fizzles out towards the climax. Perhaps this is down to the incredibly lean 90 minute running time. If we could spend more time in this world hanging around with its fascinating characters, then the ending would have more of a punch. Then again, if your sole criticism of a movie is “I wish it was longer,” it’s clearly doing something right. 4/5
Please note, this article was originally published last October as part of our London Film Festival coverage.