'Virgin' going into Labor vs. actioner

On a seasonally slow Labor Day weekend sure to be depressed by Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, the box office race will come down to a battle between the inexperienced lover and the all-too-experienced killer.

U’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” which declined a bit to remain in first place during the week, is expected to duke it out for the top spot with Fox actioner “The Transporter 2,” the weekend’s only very wide release.

Neither pic is expected to exceed the low teens.

“Transporter” sequel bows on 3,303 screens, while Focus’ “The Constant Gardener” opens on 1,346, Miramax’s “Underclassman” hits 1,132 and Warner’s “A Sound of Thunder” cracks only 816.

Original “Transporter” made only $25 million in 2002, but pic turned out to be a surprisingly strong performer on DVD; Fox execs have higher hopes for the sequel. The film is tracking reasonably well for the end of summer, with a tilt toward men.

Focus also has relatively high hopes for the well-reviewed “Constant Gardener,” which is opening wide rather than going platform.

Pic opened in the No. 3 spot with $930,000 on Wednesday and the day’s highest per screen average at $702.

“It’s performing best in smart locations, but this film plays broader than just the niche arthouse world,” said Focus distrib chief Jack Foley.

“Gardener” will likely be battling it out for third against returning pics “Brothers Grimm” and “Red Eye.”

Nick Cannon starrer “Underclassmen” may be in the mix as well with support from urban auds and fans of his Nickelodeon skein.

Warner has extremely low expectations for “Thunder” given the small number of theaters on which it is bowing. Studio is obliged to give the pic a release as part of a deal with the bankrupt Franchise Pictures, which made it. With little promotion, title will likely appeal just to sci-fi fans familiar with the Ray Bradbury time-travel story on which it is based.

In limited release, only significant bow is Regent Releasing’s standup concert “Margaret Cho: Assassin,” which debuts on eight screens.

New Yorker’s “Games of Love and Chance,” TLA’s “Three Dancing Slaves” and Palm’s “William Eggleston in the Real World” each bow on one screen.

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