While continuing to make a steady stream of stand-alone movies—most of them pretty solid, if not outstanding—Tom Cruise has also been busy trying to build franchises, with less success. The “Jack Reacher” series limped its way to a second installment, but both movies were mediocre at best. And “The Mummy” was so atrocious that it seems single-handedly to have doomed Universal’s proposed Dark Universe project.

But there has been one shining exception—the “Mission: Impossible” series based on the old TV show, which started with flamboyant but uneven episodes directed by Brian De Palma (1996), John Woo (2000) and J.J. Abrams (2006), but then—in a complete reversal of the “Star Wars” model—really took off in the second trilogy, starting with Brad Bird’s “Ghost Protocol” (2011) and continuing the momentum with Christopher McQuarrie’s “Rogue Nation” (2015). McQuarrie returns for another installment, and he not only maintains the excitement of his first outing but in some respects even exceeds it. “Fallout” might very well be the best “M:I” movie yet.

Of course, it has a narrative replete with convolutions, twists, double-crosses and sudden surprises. The MacGuffin is a trio of circular-shaped metallic canisters of plutonium, which have been stolen by a mad Danish physicist (Kristoffer Joner) who hopes they will be used to “change the world.” The danger is that they will be acquired by the remnants of the Syndicate, the cabal of terrorists that Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the ex-MI6 agent caught by the Impossible Mission Force in “Nation,” joined; the group, now known as The Apostles, plans to weaponize the plutonium and use the bombs to destroy the geopolitical status quo in order to force the creation of a new, and presumably improved, world order. And the shadowy group is now in league with a mysterious villain called John Lark, whose real identity is unknown.

All this is laid out breathlessly in the tape that their boss sends to IMF leader Ethan Hunt (Cruise), charging him and his associates Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg) to retrieve the plutonium—if they choose to accept the assignment. Of course they do, but their initial attempt to buy the canisters goes awry and their recovery forces Hunt to make contact with a sultry arms dealer (and sometimes philanthropist) known as the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) in Paris, assuming the role of the Apostles’ buyer with one of Benji’s special masks.

By this time, however, CIA head Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) has grown tired of the IMF’s slapdash methods—and especially with Hunt’s reluctance to use methods that will involve the sacrifice of team members or widespread collateral damage in fulfilling its aims—and so saddles them with one of her own, ruthless agent August Walker (Henry Cavill), who has no such compunction.

The White Widow’s opaque plans, however, require the now-quartet to liberate Lane from the permanent custody in which he’s being kept, passed from nation to nation for interrogation. They succeed, but at that point the hitherto unidentified villain is unmasked (masks that allow characters to assume the identities of others remain, of course, a deliciously campy aspect of the M:I formula, and it comes into play here in a twisty turn of events). Also entering the action at this juncture is MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who developed a romantic link with Hunt in “Nation,” and whose motives are here decidedly enigmatic.

The big finale will take the crew from Europe to Asia, where they finally face off against both the freed Lane and the mysterious Lark—and deal with a digital meter clicking off the seconds to destruction.

McQuarrie’s script is undeniably complicated, and the seams often show; again and again one character or another will be confronted with an apparently impossible obstacle, intone the catch phrase “I’m working on it” (which becomes less a catch phrase than a motif), and then suddenly leap to the solution, as incredibly implausible as it might be. One frequently has to chuckle over the absurdity of it all—including an ending that literally leaves only one second to spare.

And yet the screenplay also takes the time to add links to previous movies in the series—not only Lane and Faust, but a last-act surprise that takes us back to the first trilogy, in a satisfying way. (Just check the cast listing for clues.) On a more basic level one can also appreciate McQuarrie’s recognition of a modicum of intelligence in viewers by not captioning the locales—“Paris, France,” “London, England”—as they change, as most multi-national action pictures do nowadays. By simply dropping the places into conversation (as well as adding tongue-in-cheek, winking moments), it treats viewers as something other than drooling idiots.

At the same time, the catena of unlikely occurrences gives McQuarrie the chance to stage a succession of terrific set-pieces, in which Cruise amazes with physical feats worthy of a stunt-man half his age. After the pre-credits prologue, which serves as an over-the-top nod of the hat to the old TV series, the film is off to the races, with each action sequence leading to one that’s even more spectacular—a parachute jump onto Paris’ Grand Palais and a protracted battle in a Paris public washroom; a chase through the French capital’s streets involving vans, cars, motorcycles, boats, and feet; a London stop that includes another chase, through a crowded funeral in St. Paul’s and across the city’s rooftops; and the final confrontation in the snow-capped peaks of Kashmir, where dueling helicopters come into play, followed by a one-on-one fight atop a flat-topped plateau with steep cliffs that invite climbing, close-shaves and inevitable falls.

All of these set-pieces are staged with enormous skill and energy: McQuarrie, Cruise, cinematographer Rob Hardy, editor Eddie Hamilton and stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood (abetted by Lorne Balfe’s score, which incorporates bits of Lalo Schifrin’s iconic music)—along with Cruise and Cavill in particular—work together to create sequences that provide the sort of adrenaline rush nobody will be able to resist. The key is that although effects are undoubtedly part of the mix, the result, however extravagant, feels real, looking like actual human beings engaged in the most outlandishly bone-crushing behavior. It’s that tactile quality that gives the admittedly ridiculous action just enough credibility to allow you to swallow it for the moment. By comparison, the CGI antics in most of today’s bombastic blockbusters look like the cheap computer-generated junk they are, however expensive they might be to execute.

Kudos to the cast for playing the nonsense with the gravity the material requires to avoid degenerating into a cartoon. Cruise’s intensity in the dramatic moments, complementing his physical acts of daring, is essential, and though Cavill and Harris (and, surprisingly, Bassett) are uncomfortably stiff, Ferguson, Kirby and Michelle Monaghan make up for it. Of course Rhames, Pegg and Baldwin are available to provide bits of humor, though all can also manage their more serious moments.

The result is the increasingly rare summer popcorn movie that actually makes it worthwhile to go to the concession stand and buy some. Since it runs nearly two-and-a-half-hours, you’ll need the giant-sized tub, but you won’t have to run out for refills. That would be unfortunate, since the movie is tightly constructed, and you won’t want to miss anything.