I Rewatched 'King Cobra,' James Franco's Terrible Gay Bait Murder Movie
It's the least gay gay movie I've ever seen.
Image via Rabbit Bandini Productions
Welcome to One More Time, the column where writers revisit and review the movies they walked out of in theaters.
I am too cheap to walk out of a film (I sat through the entirety of mother! for the sake of spending every cent of my $14) but I’m not above closing a Netflix tab. On my first try, I made it 40 minutes into King Cobra, the James Franco-tinged true crime thriller about famously once-underage porn star Brent Corrigan and the murder of Cobra Video porn producer Bryan Kocis. It was January, and I had the flu, so I was eager to redirect a bad mood.
I was so sick I’d ordered Seamless, which I almost never do, and as I waited for my ramen, swaddled in flannel on my couch, I tried to hate-watch it. But apart from a montage to the surprisingly well-deployed “Filthy Gorgeous,” not much was going on in the first twenty-ish minutes. I had only seen one butt, standing still in a jockstrap for two seconds. I didn’t expect porn, exactly, despite the film’s subject matter, but I hoped there might be something to chew on besides a few twinky underwear ads. There wasn’t.
All I knew about King Cobra before watching was that it was the “gay porn murder” movie, and after nearly half the movie it still hadn’t happened. No one had even talked about murdering or being murdered, and I was already almost a prestige TV episode into a dickless dramascape that felt like every James Franco movie I’d ever seen. Chekov’s gun was nowhere to be seen, and I knew exactly where to look for it. At the 40-minute mark, as Corrigan strolls wistfully through a horse stable, I turned it off and opened Scruff instead.
An IMDb search I performed during an early scene on my second viewing attempt, last week, revealed that Franco is only one of several executive producers, and the film was written and directed by Justin Kelly, co-writer and director of I Am Michael (2004), starring Franco and Zachary Quinto, about an ex-gay pastor. I’d been about to dismiss the movie as “more straight nonsense about gay people,” but that bit of info took some of the wind out of my sails.
Corrigan, a.k.a. Sean Lockhart, which is not a bad porn name to begin with, is played by Garrett Clayton, which is also a pretty decent porn name. Clayton plays a convincing porn star, with a semi-swole Zac Efron, Ken doll hunkiness and a robotic twinkle in his eyes à la Matt Bomer. Christian Slater’s acidic, squinting visage is pitch-perfect as an aging gay man of a certain predatory vanity. He looks nothing like real-life Bryan Kocis, but then Slater is playing “Stephen” Kocis—for what I imagine are legal reasons. James Franco appears, as he so often does, as gay-but-not-that-kind-of-gay tough guy rival porn producer Joe Kerekes, whose boyfriend Harlow Cuadra (Keegan Allen) brutally stabs Kocis for, like, twenty seconds in the last fifteen minutes of the film.
It’s been blurbed as “the Boogie Nights of gay porn,” but it’s more like the Party Monster of the casting couch, a store-bought Halloween costume of cinematic gravitas. ( Boogie Nights at least shows pretend dick.) Real-life Lockhart dismissed the film as Hollywood “bastardizing” his life story, and is reportedly at work on a corrective memoir titled Incorrigible, which I guess is a pun on “Corrigan.”
When King Cobra was released, in 2016, its straight stars did the usual bravery junket, patting each other on the back for eschewing gay stereotypes in favor of acting. "I just wanted to be a human being who happens to like young men," Slater told Variety. Funny how that happens to some human beings! Straight-actors-proudly-playing-gay is a tired bone to chew on, and James Franco’s weirdly insistent gay oeuvre is even more tired, but these two elements of King Cobra conspire to make it the least gay gay film I’ve ever bothered to finish.
Franco has made a cottage career of being a cock tease on gay themes, from James Dean (2001) to Howl (2010), but King Cobra seems an especially brash half-assing. I understand that a domestic feature-length film, whatever its subject, is not going to include actual sex, or male genitalia that are not flaccid, moving quickly out of frame, and/or out of focus from across a room. This is the world we live in. Fine. But with that in mind, why bother making a movie about gay porn if you’re going to cast all straight actors, and include only heavily cropped, fifteen-second sex scenes?
Some of the acting hits its mark. Clayton is well-cast, and Molly Ringwald and Alicia Silverstone are each worth at least ten percent of a Rotten Tomatoes rating (the film is currently at 44%). The writing is wooden—too wooden, even, for a couch-ridden homosexual with nowhere else to be. Corrigan’s videos are “selling like hotcakes,” and, at the mall, Corrigan asks Kocis, “Where’s the Kiehl’s counter? I need some products.”
Who is this movie for? is the question I found harder to answer as the film went on. Straight audiences will likely never have heard of Brent Corrigan, and gay audiences will die of exposure slogging through turgid, sexless dialogue waiting for a glimpse of any male body part that isn’t a pair of rapidly pumping ass cheeks. (One of Franco’s sex scenes sees him bent over a couch at a frankly unbelievable angle shouting, “Gimme that DICK!”; another reveals a sliver of black briefs he’s wearing while pretending to get a blow job. By all means, wear a cock sock, but don’t pretend the homosexuals watching can’t see your BRIEFS. Franco absolutely cannot hang.)
Franco’s briefs-under-a-swimsuit laziness reminded me of the time he bravely sucked Michael Shannon’s dildo in The Broken Tower, his Hart Crane biopic-cum-NYU thesis, and the lazy faith that expects false transgressiveness to be appreciated as authentic risk. Another Franco project, Interior. Leather Bar., imagines 40 minutes of lost footage from the 80s Pacino film Cruising by way of a (fictionalized?) Franco type casting gay men to have sex on camera, dressed as extras from the then-33-year-old original film. In one scene in King Cobra, Franco and his co-stars shout, “Fuck that twink!” several times, like they just learned a new word. It’s weird! And without an appreciable investment in the material world being portrayed—such as casting gay people to play gay people, or scripting a gay sex scene that is even half-mast sexy—what is King Cobra but self-directed voyeurism through a supremely boring peephole?
To be entirely fair, perhaps the film’s intent, in spite of its subject matter, is not to titillate or to present sex in any way other than as an element of its Wikipedia-page plot. A non-porn romance between Corrigan and one of his co-stars offers an opportunity for male-male interaction that is not explicitly about power or money, and the two share some sweet, introspective pillow talk, but the sex they have off-(porn-)camera differs little from the sex they have for others to watch—or from the sex Corrigan and Kocis have, which is, initially at least, at Kocis's direction.
King Cobra’s politics about porn and the porn industry are, on the whole, sort of confusing. Kocis is played a little stepdad-ly, and the question of blame in Corrigan’s underage work feels unevenly laid, and thorny. Corrigan was a victim, whatever his role in his own victimization. Kocis’s murderers are portrayed as damaged vigilantes, avenging an abusive stepfather by way of avenging Corrigan’s victimization—though in the film, Kerekes and Cuadra seem far more concerned with the financial aspects of Kocis’s relationship with Corrigan than the sexual ones—and making them the primary villains of the film sidesteps, perhaps without meaning to, the discrete villainy of a figure like Kocis.
My notes around the the one-hour mark, prompted by I’m not sure what, read, “Does King Cobra believe doing porn is acting?” Porn is certainly acting, and, as King Cobra occasionally hints, some people simply enjoy doing it, and are not victims of desperation or poor circumstance. Of course, it can be both. But whether King Cobra can be both a high-drama romp through a gay porn scandal and a worthwhile movie about gay people for gay people to watch, I’m not sure.
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