The original “Die Hard” came out in 1988, and was a rip-roaring, if totally implausible cartoon action flick about rogue cop John McClane (Bruce Willis), who foiled a villainous plot that involved a criminal takeover of an office tower. It was predictably followed two years later by an even more over-the-top sequel, in which McClane overcame a bunch of terrorist-like thugs who seized control of a larger area—an airport. Five years after that came the super-sized “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” in which he outmaneuvered a mastermind threatening an entire city. Now, after a full twelve-year hiatus, McClane returns, guns blazing and fists ready to pummel, in a wildly extravagant fourth helping called “Live Free or Die Hard.” Here he fences with a guy whose dastardly plot embraces nothing less than the entire country. By my calculations, if the future mirrors past performance, we can expect the next “Die Hard”—maybe “Die Still Harder”—in the year 2035, and the plot McClane foils will have to threaten the whole world. Of course, by that time he’ll doubtlessly be retired and probably using a walker, which might slow down all the jumps, rolls, sprints and fights.

That reasoning might seem illogical, but it’s certainly no more so than the scenario screenwriter Mark Bomback has cobbled together after an article by John Carlin called—heh, heh—“A Farewell to Arms.” This time around, McClane—once again played by Willis, looking quite fit at fifty-plus, eschewing a toupee and with patented smirk firmly in place (though without many clever throw-away lines at hand)—is drawn into full-bore war against a fellow who’s orchestrating what computer geeks call a “fire sale”—shutting down all the country’s essential services by poisoning its high-tech infrastructure, thus causing complete governmental and business paralysis and public panic. Our hero becomes the unstoppable front-line defender of the status quo because he’s been ordered to pick up computer wiz Matt Farrell (Justin Long) for questioning by the feds, and after saving the hacker from a gang of assassins joins forces with the guy (who was, of course, an unwitting cog in the plot) to stop the devastation. It also “gets personal” when the villain kidnaps McClane’s estranged daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and threatens to off her if the cop doesn’t back down.

“Live Free or Hard Hard” certainly provides aficionados of empty-headed action with a surfeit of it—starting with a big gunfight at Farrell’s apartment and an elaborate car chase as McClane spirits the fellow away from his would-be killers through the streets of Washington and proceeding through other similarly explosive episodes until it culminates in a hilariously loopy confrontation between McClane, driving a big rig down a suspiciously empty freeway, and a US airforce jet raining missiles down on him. Whatever incredulity you might feel watching that last sequence is immediately trumped, however, when the cop, crawling out if the carnage of a collapsed underpass, spies the very truck he’d been following speeding into a warehouse and can hoof it over, bloodied but game, for his final confrontation with Mr. Big.

The phrase “non-stop action” certainly applies here, but that’s nowhere near as rare a commodity in Hollywood blockbusters as it used to be, and except for the title “Live Free or Die Hard” no longer stands out in a crowded field. Director Len Wiseman, along with his army of stuntmen and CGI artists and the help of editor Nicolas de Toth and Marco Beltrami’s blaring music, stages all the extravagant set-pieces with vigor, although it must be admitted that some of the visual effects look pretty phony and the choreography is sometimes confusing (a long sequence at a power plant, which involves a svelte martial-arts ass-kicker played by Maggie Q, an SVU and an elevator, is the worst offender in this regard). The scenes of “panic in the street,” moreover, are surprisingly modest, given the circumstances. Expanding the scope of the series, which began in a tight, confined claustrophobic space but has moved into ever-widening locales, has conventionalized the whole concept and made it less and less distinguishable from the myriad imitators of the original. The result is like a lumbering Hummer compared to the first movie’s speeding sportscar.

But the biggest problem with the picture is in matters of smaller scale. One involves the whole computer-centered “fire sale” scheme, which might enthrall technophiles out there who spend all their time at keyboards but isn’t cinematically very interesting. (When will directors learn that showing us what’s happening on monitors is a sure recipe for boredom? Or that taking us into the lair of a supposed genius hacker is likely to be equally dull, especially when the burly fellow is played—terribly, of course—by Kevin Smith?) And that’s related to another flaw—a pallid villain. It’s probably understandable that, for PC reasons, the guy should be not some foreign crazy but a disaffected DOD official with the most ordinary of motives (money), even if it strains credibility past the breaking point to posit that such a guy could mount this horrendously complicated and expensive scheme. But certainly it wasn’t necessary to have him played by Timothy Olyphant, who couldn’t be more drab. With his mindless, piercing glare and immobile face, the handsome but stiff fellow doesn’t seem to be having any fun with the part. Perhaps he should have been given a moustache to twirl. (His associates aren’t appreciably better. Apart from that limber Oriental girlfriend, they’re just a ragtag assembly of interchangeable computer geeks and apparently Eurotrash hit-men, a few with the French accents that seem obligatory in such gangs nowadays.)

As for Willis, he’s certainly game for the action stuff and does all that’s demanded of him—which isn’t much, to be sure—in the acting department. But he never manages to build up much chemistry with Long, an affable young actor who’s simply not as likable here as he’s been in earlier pictures. (The suggestion toward the close of a potential romantic connection between him and McClane’s daughter, generically played by Winstead, comes across as an unhappy afterthought designed merely to rouse her father to comic concern.) So what we’re left with is a sort of “Midnight Run” with a lot more firepower but much less charm, or—to use a more recent analogy—a version of “16 Blocks” that’s far bigger, both geographically and effects-wise, but punier where it really counts.

In an era that’s witnessed the resurrection of Rocky (not very happily) and the return of Superman (far more so), it’s not surprising that John McClane should have been called out of retirement for another tour of duty. But in the event, the advertising characterization of him as an analogue guy in a digital world seems all too apt; the movies have really passed the old franchise by. One of those ubiquitous lists published recently named the original “Die Hard” as the best action movie of all time. Whether or not you agree with the assessment, that means that this long-gestating third sequel has a lot to live up to. And unfortunately it doesn’t quite manage.