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MOVIE REVIEW

Another wild ride, but this time it goes too far

I have this theory that Bruce Willis , Nicolas Cage , and Kevin Spacey have one hairpiece between them and simply rotate it amongst themselves as needed. Call it rug-share. Since Cage obviously had dibs on the toupee for "Ghost Rider " (in which it sat atop his head like an angry marmot), Willis had to go without for the filming of "Live Free or Die Hard ."

That's a good thing. Willis with hair means acting. Willis bald gets to blow stuff up. This is what you want out of a "Die Hard" movie, even one whose title makes it sound like they shot it in downtown Nashua.

New Hampshire license plates to the contrary, "Live Free or Die Hard" takes place along the eastern corridor from New York to Washington D.C., with a side trip to rural West Virginia. It's this national carotid artery the movie's computer-savvy bad guys want to shut down, by implanting one helluva interruption-of-service outage. Step 1 creates traffic jams and takes out FAA and Amtrak communications. Step 2 sows panic on Wall Street and blows out cellphones. Step 3 aims for the nuclear armory and the banks.

It's a "fire sale" in the words of the scruffy young hacker played by Justin Long ("Accepted ," those annoying Apple ads), who the studio has cast so "the kids" will pay attention to daddy's action movie. That, however, means nothing to John McClane (Willis), the NYPD cop with the knack for being present at all attempts by effete terrorist geniuses to take over the world.

Someone here calls McClane "a Timex watch in a digital world," and the pleasure of the "Die Hard" series has always been watching this character keep ticking and ticking on his way to punching out his quarry with bare knuckles. The movies live for that moment when the uber-villain finally understands he just can't shake the guy.

In its bonehead simplicity, the original 1988 "Die Hard " remains one of the great modern action flicks, and 1990's "Die Hard 2 " was a worthy sequel: Both were state-of-the-art smackdowns delivered with craft and leavened with wit. The less said about 1995's "Die Hard: With a Vengeance ," the better. Arriving on the scene 12 years after that film and 19 years after the first, "Live Free or Die Hard" falls in the middle. You know how certain men show up at college reunions intent on proving they still have what it takes? So it is here. Better they should have called it "Try Hard."

Still, for the first hour or so, the movie's effective manly entertainment. McClane, in Philadelphia lurking around his estranged daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead ), is rerouted to Camden, N.J., to pick up the hacker, Matthew Farrell , for questioning. Since the

()kid has inadvertently provided computer code to the bad guys, they want him dead; cue the first rock-'em-sock-'em action sequence. By the time McClane and Farrell arrive in D.C., the FBI's Department of Cyber-Security, headed by Bowman (Cliff Curtis), is presiding over a governmental meltdown.

Everyone's running around the Washington Mall like headless chickens -- the terrorists have evacuated Capitol Hill with a fake anthrax scare -- but McClane just stands atop a stalled car and sniffs conspiracy on the wind. In many ways, he's a pretty representative American archetype: paranoid, truculent, plainspoken, and endlessly, inventively capable. The kind of guy willing to punch through a wall to get at a necessary gun, or to launch a car up a ramp with hopes he'll take out an enemy helicopter.

He does, of course -- you were expecting raised pinkies and Oscar-worthy dialogue? The "Die Hard" movies take place in their own blissfully illogical universe, where every bullet (and axe and rocket launcher) finds its mark except the one pointed at the hero. Even by those standards, though, "Live Free or Die Hard" sails into implausibility far too often.

It's one thing for McClane to run over a fire hydrant at the precise moment for its erupting jet of water to take out a chopper -- there's an absurd Rube Goldberg thrill to the bit. It's another for McClane and Farrell to drive for hours to a massive utilities plant in West Virginia and park outside the exact building where the villains are cooking up their next attack. Or for the hero to jump from a truck teetering on a ruined overpass to a pilotless F-15, land on its wing, and slide to safety.

And how can Farrell talk to a car's remote emergency-assistance operator when all satellite communications are down? "There's tough, and there's stupid," someone says here, and "Live Free or Die Hard" crosses the line too easily for even undemanding action spuds to tolerate. The "Die Hard" gimmick was always about an ordinary cop doing extraordinary things, but writer Mark Bomback and director Len Wiseman ("Underworld ") break the series' own rules in their breathless search to give us faster, louder, harder.

They bring on Kevin Smith , the "Clerks " director and, increasingly, an indie-cred muppet for studio movies, as Farrell's fellow badass hacker, but once you're past the initial joke (he lives with his mother), there's not much payoff. The arch-villain is a spurned government cyberwonk; Timothy Olyphant plays him as a metrosexual having a snit. Much better is Maggie Q ("Mission Impossible III ") as Olyphant's sleek second-in-command; she gets a frenetic kickboxing scene with Willis -- or, to be precise, his stunt-double -- that briefly raises the movie's temperature.

The subsidiary evil minions are the same old Eurotrash; McClane snaps them like twigs after they've performed their obligatory parkour (that building-hopping aerobic exercise featured in the opening scenes of "Casino Royale ") . Really, the only items missing from the movie's trend checklist are iPhones and fixed-gear bicycles.

But who goes to a "Die Hard" for hipness? These movies are and should be old school: One guy in an increasingly distressed T-shirt against the fiendishly-laid plans of evil masterminds. Willis knows the game, and the film's faults aren't his, but the insistence on pairing him with a kiddie hacker is a sign of the studio's desperation. So is the PG-13 rating, which effectively means only one "Yippee-ki-yay [expletive]" in the whole movie.

Sorry, boys. After two decades, the first film still does more with one skyscraper than "Live Free or Die Hard" does with an entire country.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, the model of an F-35 fighter jet was misidentified in yesterday's review of "Live Free or Die Hard.")

'Related'

Live Free or Die Hard

Directed by: Len Wiseman

Written by: Mark Bomback

Starring: Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kevin Smith, Cliff Curtis

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 130 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (intense sequences of violence and action, language, a brief sexual situation)

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