Time doesn’t have to be any kinder to the Die Hard franchise than it’s been to star Bruce Willis’ hairline. On its face, Live Free or Die Hard seems to have little going for it — an aging star scraping for one more hit, arriving 12 years after No. 3, a PG-13 rating in an R-rated series.

Lacerations loom larger on Willis’ completely naked head in Live Free or Die Hard, which includes, among its outlandishly entertaining collateral damage, the relevancy of the MPAA. With only a moderate dip in the swears and squibs department, director Len Wiseman’s ratcheted movie charges hard and crunches bones with a gleeful sense of hellacious stunts and thrills. It’s as if the MPAA issued its rating only because Willis’ 12-letter catchphrase curse gets cut off.

Atonement for awfulness has never been better, as Wiseman shrugs off the sludge of the Underworld movies. Nothing will ever hold a triggered batch of C-4 to the original Die Hard, but Wiseman combines the layered action and humor of original director John McTiernan with the young-Turk destructiveness of Renny Harlin (who made Die Hard 2).

Only Jack Bauer has had more good days ruined by terrorism than John McClane (Willis). Here, it’s of the technological variety, a hacker-generated apocalypse known as a fire sale (as in everything must go) meant to shut down the nation’s transportation, power and financial systems. Judging from the hardware, the bad guys could retire on Best Buy Reward Zone points alone.

A legion of henchmen comes in spectacles and short-sleeves or flak jackets with plenty of bullets for the stylishly dressed and groomed leader of this deadly plot, Thomas Gabriel. Gabriel’s mean enough to eventually delete McClane’s already-measly 401(k), but the often-underrated Timothy Olyphant rarely drums up much menace in the role than a metrosexual out of exfoliant.

McClane’s personal embroilment in the mess comes when he’s dispatched to pick up hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long) as a favor to Feds investigating the plan’s early hiccups. “Mutant” code innocently created by Farrell is being used maliciously, and he tries to help after McClane saves him from Gabriel’s goons in a claustrophobic, chaotic and very, very loud apartment shootout.

So begins a world-saving Eastern Seaboard jaunt for the heroes from Washington, D.C. to West Virginia to Baltimore and back again. Wiseman and screenwriter Mark Bomback leave no location untouched by the series’ hallmarks of crisp action and humor that beg to be seen on a big screen.

Crackers are jacked during three thrilling scenes in particular: a brutal slugfest with Gabriel’s girlfriend Mai Lihn (Maggie Q) that makes its way to an elevator shaft; Gabriel rocketing traffic from both ways at McClane and Farrell in a darkened D.C. tunnel; and McClane taking on a fighter jet with a semi underneath a collapsing freeway. Given the movie’s overall old-school ethos, that last bit is a forgivable foray into computer-generated effects.

People tend to forget about McClane’s quirks and tics amid the action, and Willis uses actorly age to show personal tolls of momentary heroism. McClane’s last act is a perfect character-driven mute over the cacophony that’s come before it. He might not verbalize it as he has in the past, but the yippie-ki-yay is very much alive in what will be hard to beat as 2007’s best action film.