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An elite team of government agents is assigned to infiltrate a fortress commandeered by a charismatic maniac. Then comes a fatal ambush of the good guys, and all that remains of our super team is star quality. Can't you see the lighting of the fuse, hear the hopscotch rhythms of a Lalo Schifrin theme? All right, the threat--like most threats in recent spy movies--is domestic, not international. But The Rock, this week's entry in the summer-movie testostero-thon, still looks like an instant sequel to Mission: Impossible.

Look again. The Rock, directed by Michael Bay (Bad Boys) and written by David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner, is less a rip-off than a corrective. Slick, brutal and almost human, this is the team-spirit action movie Mission: Impossible should have been.

A tortured general (Ed Harris) and some renegade Marines seize Alcatraz, take 81 tourists hostage and threaten the launch of VX gas rockets across the bay to vaporize San Francisco. An FBI biochemist (Nicolas Cage) is dispatched to defuse the weapons; a wily hermit (Sean Connery), the only prisoner to escape Alcatraz and live, is to help Cage navigate the Rock's maze of passageways.

It all works very smartly. The Simpson-Bruckheimer production duo run clever variations on their macho obsessions (missiles, car chases, gay baiting, the Crimson Tide mutiny plot). Connery and Cage are fine odd-couple buddies--the grizzled lifer and the computer nerd who, even when tossing a live grenade, throws like a girl. This ain't art, exactly. But if you're at the 'plex and need to choose between The Rock and a Cruise place, it's no choice at all.

--By Richard Corliss