ONLINE EXCLISIVE: Moviegoers lined up for 1988's "Die Hard" to see an ordinary Joe, or John as it were, fight terrorists with bare knuckles and a few well-placed "yippee-kai-yay" expletives.
Nineteen years later, John McClane is back on the beat in "Live Free or Die Hard," and Bruce Willis' hero is as indestructible as a Terminator. He dodges careening cars when he's not jumping out of them, flies helicopters and even takes a bullet — twice — for the cause.
Which franchise is this supposed to be again?
The fourth and least compelling "Die Hard" doesn't re-imagine our hero, as "Batman Begins" or "Casino Royale" did. Instead, it combines the biggest weaknesses of the '80s action films (bad dialogue, translucent characters) with enough techno-babble to make Steve Jobs blush. Hint to filmmakers: Watching people type at computer keyboards and insert discs into hard drives isn't thrilling. Ever.
The fourth installment begins with Detective John McClane tracking down a disheveled computer hacker named Matt (Justin Long, a genetic fusion of Keanu Reeves and Jimmy Fallon).
Matt is one of several infamous hackers under government surveillance, and one by one, Matt's peers are being killed by well-armed militias. Turns out the hackers unknowingly were aiding a techno-terrorist ("Deadwood's" Timothy Olyphant) plotting to control the country's computers. Traffic lights suddenly flash green in all directions. Wall Street crashes like never before. And mysterious messages appear on televisions nationwide, trumpeting the terrorists' handiwork.
It's up to Detective McClane to stop them.
Well, because he's the hero, and no other authority figure can put so much as the first pieces of the puzzle together.
"Die Hard" worked because McClane was "in the wrong place at the wrong time." Here, he's simply another cop on the beat, making his superhero shtick even harder to justify.
What's more troubling is how disinterested we are in our ragged hero.
Mr. Willis' pate is cleanly shaved this time around, and he looks more like a steel cage wrestler than the broken-down cop we know and love. Mr. Willis appears just as bored as we are, despite all the mayhem. Some of the action sequences do pop off the screen as a summer movie demands, but too often, these moments take such liberties with the laws of gravity — not to mention common sense — that we're left unmoved.
When director and sometime actor Kevin Smith shows up as another anti-social hacker, we expect at least a few punchy line readings. Nothing doing. Director Len Wiseman, of "Underworld" fame, keeps the clamps on Mr. Smith, whose mugging as Silent Bob is better than anything he gets to do here. Even Mr. Olyphant, normally a twitchy presence even in a dud like "The Girl Next Door," is a bore as the latest "Die Hard" villain. That's movie magic in reverse.
"Live Free or Die Hard" features plenty of D.C. locales, fiery explosions and a few allusions to the superior installments. Better to watch the original "Die Hard" again than to see a franchise go down in flames.
TITLE: "Live Free or Die Hard"
RATING: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, language and a brief sexual situation
CREDITS: Directed by Len Wiseman. Screenplay by Mark Bomback based on a story by Mr. Bomback and David Marconi. Inspired by an article by John Carlin called "A Farewell to Arms."
RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS