‘Men’ ready for battle

'Road' travels less with only 1,790 locales

Box office mayhem is the marquee attraction this weekend.

Four wide openers do battle starting Friday, with Sony’s sci-fi actioner “Men in Black II” certain to slay at least $20 million over its soph sesh in super-saturation release.

But DreamWorks announced Wednesday that Tom Hanks starrer “Road to Perdition” will unspool with just 1,790 engagements — roughly half the number enjoyed by “MIB2.”

News virtually assures the Sony pic of marking the first repeat No. 1 perf in weekend grosses since Memorial Day opener “The Sum of All Fears” managed the feat five frames ago. Last summer, it took until mid-August before any post-Memorial Day opener could break a trend of one-week wonders (Daily Variety, July 8).

Among sesh’s other new wide releases, B.O. handicappers figure Disney’s bowing vidgame-adaptation “Reign of Fire” to net at least in the teen millions. MGM animal adventure “The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course” could also creep into that range, and Miramax/Dimension horror pic “Halloween: Resurrection” should grab more than a few bodies as well. “Reign” and “Croc” are pegged for 2,000-plus playdates, “Halloween” about 1,950.

A 50% drop from the $52.1 million “MIB2” earned last weekend would result in a second-weekend gross of $26 million for the well-received franchise sequel. That wouldn’t generally be too high a bar for B.O. magician Hanks to leap, but “Perdition” faces a triple handicap of a lower theater count, dour crime-mob storyline and extra-crowded theatrical field.

No one figures “Perdition” can open anywhere near the $39.9 million bow of Christmas 2000 Hanks starrer “Cast Away.” A more feasible benchmark is Hanks-toplined prison drama “The Green Mile,” which bowed in December 1999 at $18 million. “This may be a week where no picture does $30 million,” Sony marketing and distrib boss Jeff Blake observed.

If so, it would rep the first weekend since the June 7 frame that the top pic failed to reach such rarified heights. That’s the sesh in which Paramount’s “Sum of All Fears” repeated at No. 1 as Warner Bros.’ “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” topped wide openers with $16.2 million.

“Perdition,” the first film from helmer Sam Mendes since 1999’s Oscar-winning “American Beauty,” is an R-rated adult drama that reps almost counterprogramming amid summer sesh’s usual crop of popcorn pics.

So, DreamWorks opted for what distrib topper Jim Tharp called a “fall approach” to film’s release strategy. Studio hopes to generate strong word of mouth from pic’s opening frame and incrementally boost “Perdition” to 2,000-plus playdates over subsequent weekends.

With a strong cast featuring Paul Newman and Jude Law in addition to Hanks, Tharp predicted thesp perfs will be so well-received, certain scenes “will be talked about for years to come.”

Meanwhile, “MIB2” has its own added baggage to deal with in trying to maintain a good B.O. hold this weekend. Last Friday’s grosses were especially robust, because many Americans were off from work the day after Independence Day. So, the comparison with this weekend will be unusually tough for the well-received sequel — with sequels also often burdened by quicker audience burnout than their predecessors.

“Reign of Fire” should enjoy a ready constituency thanks to its vidgame progenitor. Internet buzz has been high and general audience awareness of the title good.

MGM could use a breakout hit with “Crocodile Hunter” after several recent theatrical misfires. But even modest B.O. success should ensure profitability with pic’s negative cost reportedly in the low teen millions.

“Resurrection” is the eighth installment in the long-running “Halloween” movie franchise, so some level of pre-assured fan base seems likely. Title seems a surer bet to impress in subsequent homevid release, however.

It does seem that the coming crowded sesh will help the industry as a whole continue its impressive current hot streak.

The weekend will be measured against a year-ago frame relatively free of monster releases. MGM laffer “Legally Blonde” was the biggest opener on the second weekend of July 2001 with $20.4 million.

Year-to-date, 2002 is 19% ahead of the same portion of last year with $4.72 billion in total grosses.

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