What James Franco's Movie 'King Cobra' Gets Wrong About One of Gay Porn's Wildest Stories

Jesse Korman

James Franco is obsessed with gay culture. By all accounts, including Franco's own, the actor took a queer cinema class when he attended NYU and responded to stories outside the heterocentric norm. He quickly filled his IMDb page as both director and star of queer films. 

There was Howl, Interior. Leather Bar., I Am Michael — and now King Cobra, which premiered Saturday at New York's Tribeca Film Festival. Franco served as a producer on King Cobra and plays a figure in the death of former gay porn producer Bryan Kocis. He didn't direct, but still Franco's influence can be felt throughout the film. 

That's not a good thing.

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King Cobra centers its narrative on Sean Paul Lockhart, better known in the gay porn industry as Brent Corrigan. When he was just 17, Lockhart filmed a couple of scenes for Cobra Video, an independent porn studio known for its young, twink performers. As detailed in Rolling Stone's 2007 story "Death of a Porn King" and the Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway book Cobra Killer, the Corrigan brand became a phenomenon. 

Kocis (played by Christian Slater, renamed Steven for the film) entrapped Lockhart in a toxic relationship. Their time as professional and sexual partners ended disastrously: Lockhart's life was left a mess, and Kocis wound up dead.

Star Garrett Clayton as Sean Paul Lockhart in 'King Cobra'  Jesse Korgan

On balance, King Cobra gets the initial part of this story correct. Slater's a bit too attractive to fully portray Kocis, described in "Death of a Porn King" as "a bland-looking man of 41 with big ears and a pug nose," but that's the film industry for you. 

Even the most lauded biopics exaggerate details for dramatic effect. The Imitation Game won a screenplay Oscar on a factually flawed script. But King Cobra removes giant chunks of the story. For example, in the film, Lockhart returns home after Steven won't give him a sufficient raise, and in retaliation, he reveals he was underage when he first started working with the director. He also stays single.

In the real world, according to "Death of a Porn King," Lockhart fled Kocis' home after a neighbor discovered he was living there. Shortly after, he shacked up with another older lover, a man named Grant Roy. Roy and Lockhart worked together to try to take ownership of the Brent Corrigan brand — a brand Kocis still controlled. What followed was a protracted legal battle that took years to resolve. King Cobra reduces all that to less than a year of time.

The real Sean Lockhart (also known as Brent Corrigan), on right  Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Roy isn't present at all, and Lockhart's self-professed predilection for older lovers is scrubbed from his characterization. Instead, Roy's role is imprinted on Franco's character Joseph Kerekes and his boyfriend Harlow Cuadra (Keegan Allen) — Kocis' killers.

In "Death of a Porn King," Cuadra and Kerekes are background players. In Cuadra, a young ex-military man, was a new model who would potentially work with Corrigan. They couldn't work together, however, while Kocis still controlled the Corrigan name. Despite initial questions about Lockhart's involvement in the murder, he worked with police to amass evidence on Kerekes and Cuadra cleared his name.

In King Cobra, they're secondary protagonists, given nearly as much screen time as Lockhart and Steven. Franco plays Kerekes as a kind of manic, controlling figure shown repeatedly lifting weights and getting incredibly jealous of his younger lover's escorting clients. Allen's performance is all over the place, clearly suffering from limited direction or a lack of understanding of Cuadra's motives.

Star Keegan Allen as Harlow Cuadra in 'King Cobra'  Jesse Korman

The end result is a movie that seemingly has no interest in what actually happened between Lockhart and Kocis. Every scene with Kerekes and Cuadra feels like a waste of time. In one, while tanning outside, Cuadra suddenly decides to blow Kerekes; this scene affects no part of the narrative. 

Is it titillating? Sure, but it's not interesting — because this isn't their story. Cuadra and Kerekes' motive for killing Kocis is a pretty simple one: They wanted to work with Corrigan, and he stood in the way of that. That doesn't require half a movie to build; only a few of Franco and Keegan's scenes actually address their motive. The rest all just feels shoehorned in to get Franco as much screen time as possible.

Would Kerekes and Cuadra still have been major characters if one of them wasn't played by superstar producer James Franco? Maybe. But as the movie stands right now, Lockhart's story suffers — to the point that a major figure in his life was removed — in favor of scenes that just don't work.

Source: Rob Kim/Getty Images

Much of the criticism of Franco's queer works reflects on the actor's own sexuality, largely because Franco himself has been so open on the subject. "Open" doesn't mean "sensical," of course. His comments on the subject, from an interview in which "Straight James" talked to "Gay James," to a shifting answer on his sexuality, are perplexing. 

"If your definition of gay and straight is who I sleep with, then I guess you could say I'm a gay cock tease," he said in a recent New York magazine feature.

Frankly, Franco's sexuality wouldn't matter if he told these stories in a compelling way. There's nothing to King Cobra, particularly when it comes to Franco's influence. It's a badly rendered version of historical events (even Lockhart agrees); such dramatic license would only be forgivable if King Cobra had something significant to say about porn, sex, control — anything at all. But it doesn't.

Theoretically, the blame should fall on director Justin Kelly's shoulders, and some of it does. But again, Franco's fingerprints are everywhere, from the focus on his character to the shock-over-substance sex scenes that he and his fellow actors took beyond Kelly's initial plan. For someone deeply interested in queer work, Franco doesn't have the experience or knowledge to produce something compelling.

The story of Bryan Kocis' murder is a fascinating one, and "Death of a Porn King" is a deeply compelling read. King Cobra, unfortunately, is nothing more than a failed adaptation.