Warner Bros. thriller vies to unseat sci-fi epic

Mel Gibson returns to the domestic B.O. this weekend after an eight-year hiatus in front of the camera to topline Warner Bros.’ action/thriller “Edge of Darkness,” opening wide at 3,066 screens, while Disney rolls out its first release of the year, “When in Rome.”

Both films will have to compete with 20th Century Fox’s 3D juggernaut “Avatar” as it enters its seventh frame with an overall domestic haul of $561.3 million as of Wednesday.

“Avatar” already made history last weekend on the international front, sailing past “Titanic” to become the highest grossing film ever overseas with $1.29 billion and only needs $39.5 million more to overtake “Titanic’s” $600.8 million domestic intake.

At the specialty B.O., Fox Searchlight continues its steady rollout of “Crazy Heart,” adding 146 screens in its seventh frame. Pic scored the highest per-screen average last weekend with $14,551 at 93 locations.

Sony’s holdover “Legion” enters its soph sesh at 2,476 after launching in the No. 2 spot with $17.5 million, while CBS Films will look to improve on a disappointing launch of $6 million for inaugural pic “Extraordinary Measures,” starring Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser.

Other notable holdovers include Warner’s “Book of Eli” and “Sherlock Holmes.” “Eli” enters its third frame with a cume of $64.5 million, while “Sherlock” is in its sixth frame with $192.6 million.

“Darkness,” produced and financed by GK Films, rounds out a busy frame for Warner.

In the film, Gibson plays a Boston homicide detective who, after the death of his activist daughter, discovers a corporate cover up.

Gibson’s most recent star turns were in 2002 for M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller/horror “Signs,” which bowed to an impressive $60.1 million, and the contemporary war drama, “We Were Soldiers,” with $20.2 million.

During his absence from acting, Gibson directed “The Passion of the Christ,” which earned $370.3 million to become the third-highest grossing film in 2004.

Still, to what degree auds will still turn out to see him onscreen is hard to predict. Warners said tracking for R-rated “Darkness” is strongest among older males.

Disney’s romantic comedy “When in Rome,” starring Kristen Bell and Josh Duhamel, reps the frame’s other wide release, opening at 2,456 screens.

Mouse House last released traditional hand-drawn toon “The Princess and the Frog,” which has earned $99.2 million.

Searchlight hopes that Oscar noms Tuesday can help keep “Crazy Heart” in the public eye, and will expand to 739 locations that week.

Micro distrib Music Box launches German mountain-climbing pic “North Face” at five theaters in New York, Santa Fe and Aspen. Distrib also has “Seraphine” and “Cloud 9″ in release.

On the foreign front, “Avatar” shows no signs of slowing down, topping nearly every major market overseas.

As of Monday, pic became the highest grossing film worldwide for a global cume of $1.86 billion, besting “Titanic’s” $1.84 billion worldwide total.

Warner’s holdover “Sherlock Holmes” continues to perform well, having grossed $17.1 million from 5,048 screens in 55 territories with Germany added over the weekend.

“Darkness” rolls out day and date in the U.K., while Paramount’s “The Lovely Bones” expands to France, Italy and Japan.

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