Don’t tell me you are a gay man who has never heard of Brent Corrigan and Cobra Video. Even a non porn-aficionado like yours truly couldn’t help but bump into the popular twink and his series of films for the reptilian-named company during my occasional online wanders back in the day.
King Cobra tells the story of Sean Lockhart, played by former Disney Channel star Garrett Clayton, who chose the stage name of Brent Corrigan for his appearances on video. Lockhart, however, didn’t just gain popularity in the porn industry for his saucy roles but also because he got caught up in a true crime case involving Cobra Video’s producer/director Bryan Kocis, re-named Stephen in the film, where he is brilliantly portrayed by Christian Slater.
Filmmaker Justin Kelly wrote the film adapting the story told in the 2012 non-fiction book “Cobra Killer: Gay Porn Murder” by Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway, and if anything, by the time credits roll, it’s hard not to be compelled to read the source material and learn more about how the events actually unfolded in real life. We’re well aware that films inevitably take poetic license in order to make things cinematic, but the main problem with King Cobra is the lack of focus on whose story is trying to tell, which eventually leaves you feeling like you’ve barely scratched the surface of these people’s lives.
The film kicks off with a teaser of Sean/Brent’s first on camera “audition” with Stephen filming the boy’s interview/introduction to the Cobra video community, destined to culminate with no clothes and a solo session. Stephen hosts the barely legal twink at his suburban home where he also has his “studio” and shoots most of his films. The boy has lied to his young-looking mom (Alicia Silverstone), pretending to be doing a Hollywood internship but indeed he seems to have the ambition to learn more than just to “act”.
It doesn’t take long for Brent Corrigan to become the hot new name in gay porn, promptly igniting the jealousy of competitors Joe Kerekes (James Franco) and Harlow Cuadra (Keegan Allen) aka the Viper Boys. When Sean starts feeling trapped by Cobra video and finds out Stephen is making more money than the naïve boy thought possible, he demands a higher fee from the producer in order to keep working with him. Stephen obviously refuses and as Sean hints at the possibility of leaving Cobra, the producer reminds the boy about the contract he signed and has to honour.
That’s where things get racy since Stephen has trademarked the Brent Corrigan name and no other producers want to work with Sean if he can’t use the stage name that made him popular. A frustrated Sean tries to blackmail Stephen by revealing to have lied on his age and used a fake ID, claiming that he was still 17 when he shot the first four films with Cobra. As a lawsuit ensues, the Viper Boys approach Sean trying to lure him into revamping their struggling business but when hitting the trademark obstacle, they are determined to take the matter in their own hands.
Even if you haven’t heard about the true crime story when it broke on national news in 2007, it’s not difficult to imagine the grim direction where things are headed, but as the film reaches its gruesome climax, we can’t help but wonder how to feel about this whole shallow ordeal we’ve just witnessed. The reason behind such perplexity is mostly due to the fact that King Cobra, as the title suggests, should probably be about the porn video company mogul.
The few scenes where Stephen spends some time with his sister (Molly Ringwald) and her family, give us a glimpse into the sad world of a man who’s still in the closet and overcompensates with his fetish for sport cars and of course lusting after his new star. Slater does an incredibly nuanced job at conveying the psychological subtlety of this emotionally retreated man and as apparently the real life counterpart had been accused of allegedly sleeping with a 15 years old before the whole Brent Corrigan affair, one feels there was certainly more to explore there.
In that respect Justin Kelly has already tackled a controversial figure in his previous film I Am Michael (2015), also starring James Franco in the title role, about a former gay activist turned anti-gay pastor. However, whilst there’s no doubt that the filmmaker’s feature debut is indeed Michael’s film, we feel perplexed about King Cobra being Sean/Brent’s story. Besides the fleeting scenes with his mom there isn’t much depth to the character’s development and although Clayton is overall convincing at portraying the boy’s mix of naivety and sexual prowess, we can’t help having a hard time believing that he can pull off looking 18 years old.
Last but not least, the Viper boys get in the picture bringing their whole messed up backstory and dysfunctional relationship which shifts the narrative focus furthermore and whilst Keegan Allen does well as the PTSD-stricken and easily manipulated boy toy Harlow, Franco goes often over the top portraying the mentally unstable Viper Boys’ manstermind Joe. By the time the film’s epilogue unfolds, hinting at Sean/Brent’s newly found career path as a porn director/star, we’re left wondering whether this would’ve worked better as a documentary.