By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio

Better RED than dead.

That’s because the titular acronym of this vibrant action comedy stands for “Retired: Extremely Dangerous.”

So the characters are retired. But their movie, nearly as much of a thriller as it is a comedy, is anything but retiring. And nowhere near dead.

Refreshingly, RED pays tribute to talent, experience, and expertise in a way that would please the AARP.

Bruce Willis (far right in photo) stars as Frank Moses, a former covert CIA agent living a somewhat slow and boring but nonetheless idyllic life of retirement in suburban Ohio who is suddenly attacked by masked and armed intruders.

He manages to overcome his high-tech hit-squad pursuers with seemingly easy but nonetheless spectacular resourcefulness, realizing immediately that, for some reason, the CIA wants him and a number of his former associates dead. They are being assassinated one by one.

So, in order to survive, he must reassemble the aging black ops — including Morgan Freeman (center of photo), Helen Mirren, and John Malkovich (left of photo) — each of whom worked either for or through the CIA, attack the attackers, and uncover what appears to be a murderous conspiracy.

Complicating matters is the presence of Sarah, a pension administrator in Kansas City played by Mary-Louise Parker, with whom Frank has begun a flirtatious telephone relationship. She and Frank have chosen a rather inconvenient time to begin a long-distance romance.

So the eavesdroppers who have been monitoring Frank’s behavior — and phone — obviously know how to get to her. Which is why, to protect her, Frank takes her hostage on what becomes as exciting and life-threatening a first date as she’s ever been on.

RED, based on Warren Ellis’ 2003 DC Comics series, was adapted by screenwriters Erich and Jon Hoeber. It’s a goofily compelling road romp, with just enough mystery and puzzle pieces to keep us engaged while we wait for the next laugh-producing setup.

Willis is in fine fettle. And with Karl Urban’s CIA agent, Richard Dreyfuss’ arms contractor (far left in photo, back to camera), Brian Cox’s Russian spy, and Ernest Borgnine’s recordskeeper also along for the tongue-in-cheek ride, this is an ensemble piece in which the performers really do seem to be having a good time.

And the queenly and versatile Mirren handling heavy firearms is a nifty sight gag all by itself.

Director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan, The Time Traveler’s Wife), exhibiting an impressive and perhaps surprising penchant for comedy, sometimes overdoes the shoot-em-up stuff.  But he smartly keeps a few pleasing narrative surprises up his sleeve for use in the late reels, and maintains the film’s puckish comic spirit front and center from its wry opening on.

Schwentke moves things along at a rapid enough pace. But what distinguishes this action comedy from many lesser offerings is his willingness to slow things down between combat set pieces and let his game cast do their thing with banter and nuance.

And his cast of veterans lends the film not only star power but a knowing underlining of the film’s themes of accumulated wisdom and reclaimed youth.

So we’ll retire 3 stars out of 4 for this darkly humorous and playfully bullet-happy action-comedy, a real crowd-pleaser.

If you see RED, don’t worry, you won’t see red: you’ll be too busy being royally entertained by entertainment royalty.