The cranking involved in the reverse-engineered “YRF Spy Universe” is audible as well as visible in Tiger 3. The franchise, announced before the release of Pathaan in January, arguably began with the first Tiger film, the Salman Khan starrer Ek Tha Tiger, in 2012.

Producer Yash Raj Films intends to braid together the Tiger titles (including Tiger Zinda Hai), the follow-up to the Hrithik Roshan-led War (2019) and the Shah Rukh Khan-steered Pathaan. Was this idea present when Ek Tha Tiger was conceived or did the brainwave strike later? The latter, suggest the events of Tiger 3.

Written by Sridhar Raghavan and directed by Maneesh Sharma, Tiger 3 continues the love saga between the Indian agent Tiger and former Pakistani spy Zoya (Katrina Kaif). Invisible peace doves flutter above the couple, who met in the first film, had a son by the second, and want nothing more than peace on the restive subcontinent.

Rogue Pakistani agent Aatish (Emraan Hashmi) wants to shove aside his country’s prime minister (Simran) and stage a coup. If Tiger begins to doubt Zoya’s loyalty, he too becomes suspect in the eyes of his new boss Menon (Revathi).

Perhaps in order to distinguish the latest production from War, a feature-length advertisement of Hrithik Roshan’s sex appeal, and Pathaan, a cartoonish adventure carried by Shah Rukh Khan’s charisma, the 155-minute Tiger 3 is sombre in tone and studious in approach. Dullness is a punch or two away. The threat of the spy universe running out of fresh ways to present A-list stars is imminent too.

Tiger 3 (2023).

Nobody dares crack a smile as Tiger makes a pitch for the Nobel Peace Prize by solving Pakistan’s problems with its military alongside trying to understand if his wife has betrayed him. There’s a reason that such films are choppily edited, breathlessly leapfrogging from one montage to the next – they leave us with no time to examine the contrivances or plot holes.

Tiger 3 is low on the surprise element that is needed to spice up even formulaic fare. There’s a predictability to the scenes, with even Pathaan’s entry right on cue.

The bromance between the Khans, which trumps Tiger’s response to Zoya, is among the new movie’s highlights, along with Emraan Hashmi’s convincing villainy and the pulsating action set-pieces created by Franz Spilhaus, Oh Sea Young and Sunil Rodrigues.

Tiger 3 offers a fun way to hitch a ride in a running helicopter. A sauna doubles up as a wrestling ring. Might the action directors deserve top billing too? The question frequently crops up in a film that exists only to take the spy universe forward, rather than adding any new ideas to Tiger’s journey.

Surely that is the nature of – and the problem with – movie franchises? The expectation isn’t logic but a series of thrills, fan service rather than character sketching. But Tiger 3 matches the mood of Salman Khan’s dour, duty-shackled agent, going through the motions yet again.

The nationalism is dialled down, and there is talk of democracy being preferable to dictatorship – welcome developments – even as Pakistan gets a lecture on how to conduct its domestic affairs. The sparks that flew between Tiger and Zoya in the first, and most effective, movie have been replaced by the complaining squeaks heard when different motors are forcibly yoked together.

Perhaps the spy universe needs a radical new element to shake up things – not the threatened reunion with Kabir from War, but characters from YRF’s Dhoom franchise. Now that could actually be fun.

Tiger 3 (2023).