After a prologue in the 1600s (this movie has a prologue in the 1600s!), we skip ahead to the near future, where a weapons manufacturing company run by James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston) has just finished their latest invention. Using nanobot technology, their missiles will literally consume their targets, whether that means tanks, planes, or entire cities. The first four are packaged and given to the U.S. Military, who sends an entire convoy to deliver them. En route, the deliverymen are attacked by a ship carrying Baroness (Sienna Miller), who attempts to kill everyone and steal the missiles. Soliders Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) fight back and are prepared to die protecting the payload when General Hawk (Dennis Quaid) and his elite team step in to save them. Duke and Ripcord are taken to the Joes' base, and they join to try and stop the missiles from being stolen again.
The movie's ludicrous imagination kicks in almost immediately. At first, Duke and Ripcord train on fairly standard, if unrealistically advanced courses, like a shooting gallery with holographic targets and in hand-to-hand combat using big, futuristic-looking sticks. Then the movie just cuts to a short clip of Duke piloting an underwater spaceship-looking thing in a miles-long tank filled with giant rings, and my brain was happy to shut off and enjoy the spectacle. Other critics will say it's just like a video game, but it's so unabashedly, gleefully, purposefully like a video game that I kind of think that's the idea. In the accelerator suit chase through the streets of Paris (seen in most of the trailers), Scarlett (Rachel Nichols) flies after Duke and Ripcord on a commandeered civilian motorcycle that magically moves about 300 miles an hour, and all I could think of was driving motorcycles like that in Grand Theft Auto.
Speaking of that chase sequence, it's a jaw-dropping tidal wave of awesomeness, with Duke, Ripcord and Scarlett aided by the silent good-guy ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park), clinging to the underside of the villains' Hummer as the group causes untold amounts of damage. Cars fly through the air like they're made of paper and buildings are reduced to craters, all at a dizzying, breakneck speed. It even changes method of transport, switching from a car chase to a foot chase without missing a beat. I promise, at the very least, this fifteen minutes alone is worth your hard-earned matinee dollars.
The Joes are all well-cast. Personally, I liked Rachel Nichols and Marlon Wayans, who are both charismatic and have an entirely playful chemistry with each other. I didn't even mind Wayans' cheesy comic relief. His jokes aren't particularly funny, but he doesn't scream for attention the way he has in other movies, and all of his comedy bits put together couldn't take up more than ten minutes. My only complaint is that I'd have liked to see more of Dennis Quaid's General Hawk. There's a scene in the movie that briefly reminded me of Innerspace, and while it's totally not right for the character, I still would have liked to see him slip a bit of "the Tuck Pendleton machine" (zero defects!) into the role.
The good guys are complemented by a solid roster of villains. Christopher Eccleston, as far as I can tell, is supposed to be the main bad guy, and he's good at standing around in fine suits, sneering and being slimy (and when given the chance, he wisely refuses to reveal his evil plot), but for all intents and purposes, I'd say his evildoing in the movie is equal to that of Sienna Miller's Baroness. The shared history she has with Duke is worked in to varying degrees of success over the course of the film, but even without it, she's got more personality than any of the other action-movie villains I've seen this year (both the villains in Wolverine AND Terminator were silent!). Minor spoiler ahead. Skip to the next paragraph to avoid reading it. There's also a psychotic doctor (of course there is!), played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and he really dredges up some entertaining evil, covered with creepy makeup and practically cackling some of his lines. The only letdown is he spends most of the movie with his voice altered, which takes away from the experience of seeing him play the role.
It's all about tone, and director Stephen Sommers has it down. I haven't seen Deep Rising, which by several accounts is his most entertaining picture, but I've always thought he deserved a little more credit than he gets. If Sommers made slightly better movies, he'd be a genre favorite on par with Sam Raimi (certainly the directorial style of Van Helsing owes more than a little debt of gratitude to Army of Darkness). Despite rumors he was fired, this is his movie through and through, the kind of movie where a character calmly admires a military complex hidden under the polar ice caps because "It's the perfect hiding place. Undetectable and untraceable," and not because it's totally freaking ridiculous. Sommers even brings a few friends with him, including the reliably weaselly Kevin J. O'Connor, Arnold Vosloo, and another fun cameo I won't spoil. The Rise of Cobra is just like the Joes themselves: gets in, gets the job done, and gets out clean, all because Sommers knows what he's doing. And as they say, knowing...