“With a twink you blink and they’re a twunk.”
A cross of Boogie Nights and Cruising, Justin Kelly’s King Cobra is kind-of wonderful. Based on a true story, King Cobra follows not-so-innocent and not-so-naive twink Sean (Garrett Clayton), who gets discovered and recruited for some amature gay porn by powerful amature porn mogul Stephen, alias King Cobra (Christian Slater). Stephen, still in the closet to his friends and family, runs his gay porn empire discretely out of his suburban home. He sees greatness in Sean’s future, and Sean — adopting the porn name Brent Corrigan — soon rises to superstardom.
The story of Stephen and Sean/Brent is contrasted with Joe (James Franco) and Harlow (Keegan Allen). Where Stephen and Brent are professional, complete with contracts and set call times, Joe and Harlow are crass and unmannered. Their films, produced under the moniker Viper Boyz, look cruder; more unpolished. They don’t know it, but all four men are headed towards a collision course that will end in bloody murder.
Director Kelly has a sharp cinematic eye, and the filmmaker expertly stages scenes of sex and violence with equal measure. The filmmaker straddles the line between very human drama and vulgar exploitation, and perhaps realizes that the two aren’t mutually exclusive along the way. What makes King Cobra successful is how seriously Kelly’s script treats its situation and its characters, even if the characters themselves don’t behave as such. Joe and Harlow are practically airheads at times, and Franco clearly relishes in playing his slow-witted, short-tempered character — he and Allen have an unmistakable chemistry with each other. Joe and Harlow love each other, but they’re also terrible for each other too — they bring out each other’s worst, and most violent, traits.
Clayton is charming as Brent, the rising star. We watch as Brent goes from sort-of-clueless to empowered and in control of his newfound fame. And that power threatens Stephen, his director and admirer. Slater is the true breakout performance here, and the actor has seemingly found a second wind in his career between roles like this and his work on Mr. Robot. Gone is the Jack Nicholson-like-schtick so prevalent in Slater’s youth, replaced with a weariness, and a wiseness. Stephen makes his porn films because it’s what he wants to do, and he’s determined to do things that make him happy. But he also keeps his sexuality a secret from his sister (Molly Ringwald), and when Brent embraces him in public he looks around quickly, nervous of being seen. He lusts after Brent, and badly wants the younger man to return the feeling. “Please, make me feel wanted,” he implores at one point. That’s really all any of the characters in King Cobra want, and that’s part of what makes the film so effective. Who hasn’t felt that way?