Willis wows U.K., French audiences

'Die Hard' is back with a vengeance

LONDON — The Brits and the French agree on one thing: Bruce Willis still has what it takes.

The high-octane “Die Hard” action franchise might have been dormant for 12 years but Euro auds are embracing the return of reluctant hero John McClane in the fourth installment with open arms.

In the U.K., “Live Free or Die Hard” — known locally as “Die Hard 4.0” — goes into the weekend on a real high having banked $1.9 million in previews on Wednesday and $1.3 million Thursday. Bookers attribute the boffo previews to its wide appeal. Unlike “Rocky Balboa,” “Die Hard” is playing as well with female auds as with its core aud of red-blooded males, according to exhibs.

Fox is looking for an opening frame including the previews of $11 million.

Reviews have been roundly positive for the muscular actioner. “It’s utterly ridiculous and, I’m afraid, pretty enjoyable,” wrote Anthony Quinn in the Independent. “A more than acceptable bit of crash-bang summer escapism,” said Tim Robey in the Daily Telegraph.

Other U.K. releases are generating little buzz.

Persistently rainy weather, or “good cinemagoing weather” as Brit bookers prefer to call it, has been boosting box office for the past few weeks but sunnier weather is forecast for this weekend.

A weekend of high-profile sports events including the U.K. leg of the Tour de France, the closing matches of Wimbledon and the British Grand Prix Formula One race will likely eat into U.K. B.O. grosses.

The latest “Die Hard” is also proving a big hit across the English Channel where Gallic auds are traditionally sweet on Willis.

The actioner took $1.7 million at 749 on its opening day helped by positive reviews. “The quintessence of an American action film … Willis is at the summit of his droll anti-hero persona,” hyperventilated Paris Match.

Topping the new local openers, “Je deteste les enfants des autres” banked an impressive $198,000 on its first day for SND on 193. Helmer Anne Fassio’s laffer about families sharing holiday accommodation was dissed by the critics as very old hat. “A generational sociology lesson undermined by an insipid script,” sniped Le Monde.

StudioCanal was thrilled by the critical and commercial reception for the director’s cut version of Robert De Niro’s “The Good Shepherd.” Despite its hefty running time of 167 minutes limiting the number of screenings per day, it still opened at nearly $170,000 on 240. “Gifted with dramatic intensity and impeccable acting,” sang Le Figaro.

In Spain three local Davids take on one Goliath as “Chuecatown,” helmed by Spanish first-timer Juan Flahn, Rafa Cortes’ “Me” and Enrique Gabriel’s Spanish-Argentinean co-pro “Sighs from the Heart,” step into the ring with Michael Bay’s “Transformers.”

Universal’s monster bowed Wednesday on 650 and is expected to dominate weekend biz.

But it won’t necessarily be a bloodbath at the Spanish B.O.

“The audiences for the films are really different. There won’t be any demo collision,” said one exhibitor.

Gay dark comedy “Chuecatown” goes out on a cautious 99 via Filmax amid negative reviews. “Rancid realism targeted at bourgeois pseudo-liberals,” ranted newspaper El Pais. That put-down does not surprise local bizzers as Spanish critics make a habit of being hard on local comedies that attempt to court mainstream crowds.

“Sighs from the Heart” and “Me,” a fave on the fest circuit, are sent out on limited release by Sherlock. “Me” has been very warmly received by Spanish critics.

Also bowing in Spain are Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s “Odette tout le monde,” which goes out on 62 via Notro, and Ray Lawrence’s Aussie drama “Jindabyne” on 48 via Vertigo.

With no new Hollywood tentpoles as magnets, it looks like a downbeat weekend in Italy, where the biggest opener is hip-hop romp “Stomp the Yard,” out on 250 via Sony.

“Transformers” is expected to easily retain the top Italo spot in its second frame, having cumed $5.5 million to date.

Also being outed is shark toon “Shark Bait,” on 107 via Mediafilm, and Paris-set horror flick “Catacombs,” released on 93 by Eagle Pictures, both potentially viable commercial counterprogramming titles.

On the artier front, Japanese anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s vintage “Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro” will try to lure in Italo cinephiles, along with Gallic auteur Andre Techine’s AIDS drama “The Witnesses,” starring Emmanuelle Beart, on 13 via 01 Distribuzione.

01 is also outing the only new Italo entry, dating agency comedy “Agenzia Matrimoniale,” by first-timer Christian Bisceglia on 51, which is not expected to get much action.

In Germany, no new tentpole arrivals means “Live Free or Die Hard” and “Shrek the Third” will continue their domination at the top of the charts. The Willis actioner is widely expected to hold tight to top spot.

Counterprogramming against the two blockbusters, Universal and Central unspool Craig Brewer’s steamy southern drama “Black Snake Moan” and Douglas Mackinnon’s cycling drama “The Flying Scotsman,” respectively. Both pics carry arthouse appeal and could also generate some interest and curiosity among multiplex-goers thanks to strong reviews.

” ‘Black Snake Moan’ belongs to its lead actors Christina Ricci and Samuel L. Jackson. Without them the crude story, with its deliberate B-film characters, would be doomed to failure,” wrote Die Welt, while Spiegel Online branded it a “wild drama about lust, sorrow and redemption.”

Trade magazine Treffpunkt Kino, meanwhile, called “The Flying Scotsman” “a winner,” praising topliner Johnny Lee Miller for a “charismatic, terrific performance.”

More traditional arthouse fare includes Prokino/Fox’s Swedish comedy “Heartbreak Hotel” from Colin Nutley, which has won much critical praise, and Anahi Berners’ Argentinean gay drama “A Year Without Love,” going out via Salzgeber.

” ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ is more subversive than ‘Sex and the City’ and funnier than ‘Desperate Housewives,’ ” praised the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Additional reporting by Ed Meza (Germany), Nick Vivarelli (Italy), David Hayhurst (France) and Emilio Mayorga (Spain) .

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