King Cobra review: James Franco at his lurid best in gay porn shocker

I AM MICHAEL Still James Franco On Stairs 2

As an actor, James Franco has two modes: committed and can’t-be-bothered.

His bold work in Spring Breakers, 127 Hours and Pineapple Express falls into the first category; Oz the Great and Powerful and Werner Herzog’s misbegotten Queen of the Desert meanwhile feature Franco at his most lifeless. Luckily for film-maker Justin Kelly, Franco is at his brazen best in the dark gay porn saga King Cobra.

The film reunites the star with the director of I Am Michael for another gay-themed narrative based on real events. That, however, is where the similarities end.

In I Am Michael, Franco played a gay activist who declared himself straight after becoming religious. King Cobra finds Franco in supporting mode, in service of a ripped-from-the-headlines drama covering the crazy tale behind the early rise of gay porn star Brent Corrigan.

Teen Beach Movie star Garrett Clayton makes a radical shift to very adult-orientated fare as the tanned and taut Sean Paul Lockhart, who at the outset of Kelly’s film is seen on grainy digital footage, auditioning for Cobra Video, the amateur gay porn company that would soon go on to make him famous. Introducing himself as Brent Corrigan, Lockhart proceeds to masturbate on camera. “They are going to love you,” says Stephen (Christian Slater), the man who runs the lucrative empire out of his suburban home.

At first Stephen appears harmless, visibly enamored with his young new talent. But as Lockhart’s star begins to rise, he grows more predatory, deluding himself that the pair are lovers. Lockhart is young (he’s 17 at the outset of Kelly’s film, lying to Stephen that he’s 18) but, according to the film, no fool. Quickly realizing his value, Lockhart immediately demands a higher fee, leading to an ugly fallout.

Seeing the development as an opportunity, Joe (Franco), an enterprising but cash-strapped porn producer, lassoes in his performer boyfriend Harlow (Keegan Allen) to get Lockhart on their roster by whatever means necessary.

Joe and Harlow are no less ambitious than Stephen and Lockhart. What holds their venture, the Viper Boys, back from being a Cobra-level success is Joe’s hot temper, which comes to boil whenever things don’t go his way, and his penchant for spending way beyond their means. Harlow is also portrayed as a bit of a dimwit. “Do you think in heaven you can eat as much as you want and not get full?” he asks Joe at one point.

Despite its subject matter, King Cobra isn’t a gay Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic about the inner workings of the porn industry. King Cobra is much more contained, solely focused on the intersection of these four characters over a short span of time. Where Kelly and his cast let loose are in the film’s wild sex scenes, which both serve the narrative and manage to titillate.

The acting is uniformly strong. Alicia Silverstone brings a lot of heart to her few scenes as Lockhart’s deceived mother. And while Clayton makes for a charismatic lead, it’s Franco who steals the picture, much as he did in Spring Breakers. As in Harmony Korine’s neon-lit thriller, the actor goes no holds barred.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Nigel M Smith, for theguardian.com on Friday 22nd April 2016 19.22 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010