Justin Kelly’s King Cobra premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York. A year later, it premieres at Kultur!Kokoska exclusively for you.
This cobra is not a superior sequel of Cobra (1986), by the director and protagonist Sylvester Stallone, nor is it a half-sister of Anaconda (r. Luis Llosa, 1997). It is not Boogie Nights (r. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997) of the gay world either, as many critics have named it. Cobra is simply Cobra, and Cobra is the film to watch.
It is often seen that small productions with one ring-a-bell name stay in shadow of that name: King Cobra has barely avoided this scenario, even though the majority refers to it inevitably mentioning James Franco. He is, apart from playing his role, also the producer of the film, therefore mentioning him is not senseless. It would be, however, senseless to observe the whole film through the francoprism. In Cobra, Franco reunites with the director Justin Kelly, with whom he had previously worked on I am Michael, the saga of a gay activist who is “cured” by the influence of the church. Kelly has his roots deep into the gay scene, and has obviously profiled himself in that direction, so it is expected to have I am Michael compared with King Cobra, but it would be offensive to compare the two only to judge where Franco had a better performance of a gay sex scene (which is a common topic of discussion considering these two films).
As you may have spotted, I have used word “gay” several times, and I have also mentioned sex and Boogie Nights, so you may have an idea of what the core of this film is: based on a true story, King Cobra tells of the traumatic events that have rocked the early years (now already a decade old) of online gay porn industry. Steven (Christian Slater) films low budget porn in his home, cuddled in the cosiness of an American suburb. Steven is a director, screenwriter, editor, producer, uomo universale of his business – Cobra Videos. Cobra videos rises to success with arrival of the new so called twink (attractive pal in his late teenage years), Sean Paul Lockhart, widely known under his stage name Brent Corrigan. Brent is played by straight-outta-Disney-channel Garrett Clayton, who ensures cutting the associative ties with Disney by playing this role, even though it is exactly his boyishly naive smile what you will remember for a long time after Cobra. I finally reach the point where Franco enters the game: his character Jo is a stronger and more impulsive half of the duo Viper Boyz, the main competition of Cobra Videos. Franco, however, does not steal the show, but shares it with Keegan Allen, who plays Harlow – the fragile and silly other half of the Boyz. Harlow is an ex-marine and if it wasn’t for the true story, this sexualizing of the ex marine could be understood as provocation of American army order, especially having in mind the recent case of Chelsea Manning. Viper Boyz live in opalescence, but with half a million in debt, enjoy the cliché scenes of car washing and want to film a porn called Fast and Curious: they attribute to the charming fun in Cobra being just the way they are. What attributes further more is Franco’s forced acting, miles far from his good appearances in Pineapple Express or 127 Hours. And it attributes by following the principle: the sillier the better.
The film follows two parallel stories with sex being the only connection. It is important to notice that the sex on Steven’s/Jo’s camera has almost nothing in common with the “real sex” on the camera of King Cobra’s DOP (Benjamin Loeb), accentuating in that way the individualities of “real sex” and “sex as work”. Since the beginning it is clear that the two stories will meet, and waiting for the meeting point might seem too long. Despite the waiting, when Cobra Videos and Viper Boyz finally meet, the plot complicates turbulently, and is fizzling with jealousy, blindness, and in the end – blood. King Cobra becomes surprisingly oppressive, which shakes the viewer lulled in the music (Tim Kvasnosky) in the style of Cliff Martinez. If you are familiar with the works of Nicolas Winding Refn, the most frequent user of Martinez’ music, you would be willy-nilly reminded of Drive or Neon Demon by the neon shots in the Cobra. Nevertheless, Cobra is not a copy, nor is it trying to be one. Kelly is using Refn’s signature moves, even though this music is somewhat in conflict with almost “too loving” relationship between Harlow and Jo.
The problem of the films based on the true stories is exactly the fact that they are based. They are not true stories, and therefore they are subject to situations similar to this one: real Brent Corrigan was offered a role in the film, which he had rejected stating that the script was too much Hollywood like, that it didn’t respect all the characters of the story, and that one of the important characters was left out. All together he found it offensive. I believe, that even if Brent had written the script, somebody else would have complained. Therefore I claim that the script is suitable for the story, and that it had made it at least as intriguing as the story is itself. Quite frequently we get a brilliant story served trough the shabby or even worse, boring film. Cobra is just the opposite – dynamic and entertaining. Still it is hard not to question why all the characters have their real names, except for one – Steven. I do not have the answer to this question, and if my hypothesis goes uncovered, I might tell you the crucial detail of the story, which I would gladly avoid.
I am trying (and I am struggling) not to reveal too much of the story, while still succeeding in drawing your attention to certain points. I beg for your forgiveness, should you count the following sentence as a spoiler: Having understood Sean’s potential (his bodily and also money earning potential), but also being afraid of losing his muse, Steven puts a trade mark on Sean’s stage name. Sean decides to take the game level up and tries to find his spot in the Hollywood of gay porn. Plot twist: the big guys have no interest in Sean, but only in Brent. This is a lovely upgrade to the identity game and the rhetorical question Steven asks at the beginning of the film: “It is funny to play with who we are, isn’t it?” How does it feel when they want you, but they don’t want you? When you are yourself, but you are not? Cobra touches these questions and successfully pictures Sean’s/Brent’s torn yet one personality.
Cobra also questions self finding in the world of porn, coming of age through porn industry and finding pure satisfaction in it. The film also questions identification of prostitution and pornography, as well as reactions of family to one being a porn actor. In fact, Cobra gives more and asks more than you would expect. Also, you would expect a ton of pornographic scenes in the film about pornography. And they are there. But they are not radical, in order to avoid labelling King Cobra as porn. They are, possibly, even less explicit than scenes in some other films, which had no fear of being labelled as porn. And surely they are less explicit than Gaspar Noe’s questionable Love. However that film is called Love, while this one is called King Cobra. Nomen est omen, and the omen of Cobra is to provoke.
Cobra is victoriously provoking not only the understanding of porn industry, but also the understanding of love, humanity and inhumanity. It ends with a closed circle, underlined analogy, and an open possibility for Brent to become for someone what Steven was for him.
-How was I, tell me honestly?
-You are special.