-By Daniel Eagan

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John McClane saves the day once again in Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth entry in a series that started in 1988. Vastly superior to the gimmicky Die Hard with a Vengeance, the film rescues the franchise from irrelevance by returning to what made the original a hit: spectacular set-pieces, brutal action and crisp acting.

Looking suitably worn and hard-bitten, Bruce Willis brings gravity and focus to his role as McClane, a New York City cop who stumbles onto a plot by computer hackers to destroy the economy of the United States. McClane still has a smirk and the habit of muttering to himself, but as Willis plays him, he's a lot more bite than bark. Fewer one-liners and more maniacal desperation make this one of the actor's stronger performances. The script gives McClane a disaffected daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who becomes a "24"-style hostage, and a partner, Matt Farrell (Justin Long), a slacker hacker who has unwittingly placed the country in peril.

The plot involves a "fire sale," a three-point plan for hacking into computer networks in order to disrupt the government. Criminal mastermind Thomas Gabriel (a low-key Timothy Olyphant) plans to use the ensuing chaos to make off with billions skimmed from bank accounts. The computer setting means that cascading streams of meaningless data fill up the screen during lulls in action, with underlings tapping furiously on keyboards. On the other hand, the film does make valid points about computer security, even if they are wrapped around chases and explosions.

Twentieth Century Fox was clearly concerned about targeting younger viewers, and not just in casting Long. By hiring Len Wiseman, it handed the reins of the franchise over to a director whose previous Underworld features had more style than substance. Wiseman grasps the macho underpinnings of the Die Hard formula, and delivers the action goods without pausing too often for cheap jokes. As could be expected, the film's effects are state-of-the-art, but Live Free... really excels with its physical stunts. The action here hurts, in particular a bruising fight between McClane and the cold-blooded Mai (Maggie Q). The set-pieces are edited with a precision and pacing that leave viewers breathless.

The studio's level of commitment to the project is obvious in the film's astonishing production values. When McClane checks out a traffic jam at an intersection, he can look down four separate streets filled with cars and extras. Fox was confident enough to toss what would have been the money shot for most movies into the trailer. Still, the PG-13 rating reduces the impact of some of the mayhem, even as it opens the film up to a wider audience.

Older viewers will appreciate screenwriter Mark Bomback's respect for Die Hard fundamentals. An extended scene in an elevator shaft evokes the gritty terror of the first film. McClane's running dialogue with crook and cop is back, as is his signature kiss-off. The more fanciful bits near the end of the film may raise the hackles of purists, but it's hard to complain about a summer blockbuster this savvy and enjoyable.

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