"Max Payne" is an appropriate title for 20th Century Fox's latest movie. Maximum pain is what the studio has been enduring at the box office.
The stylized, PG-13-rated thriller starring Mark Wahlberg should open at the top of the weekend charts with $20 million or more in ticket sales -- halting Fox's slump and giving the News Corp. studio its first No. 1 launch in seven months -- as moviegoers opt for escapism over serious drama.
Oliver Stone's political biography "W.," from distributor Lionsgate, could face apathy from a public that has just watched eight years of the real thing. The picture, starring Josh Brolin as the president, is tracking in surveys to open at about $10 million, putting it in the mix for No. 2 with the female-oriented, coming-of-age drama "The Secret Life of Bees" and the holdover comedy "Beverly Hills Chihuahua."
"Max Payne," adapted from a video game and made for about $35 million, opens at 3,376 theaters in the U.S. and Canada. Wahlberg, who burnished his action credentials in "The Departed" and "Shooter," plays a cop whose family is slain, and Mila Kunis is an assassin with vengeance on her mind too, after her sister's murder. The pair are hunted by police, the mob and the obligatory ruthless corporation.
Fox hasn't had a weekend champ or a $100-million hit at the domestic box office since its animated Dr. Seuss tale "Horton Hears a Who!" came out in March. After summer flops including "Meet Dave," "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" and "Babylon A.D.," the studio's fall campaign didn't start any better: Its science fiction adventure "City of Ember" opened last weekend to $3.1 million, not even making it into the top 10 movies at the box office.
For "Max Payne," although the core gamer audience is on board, "there are a number of other elements which give the film an inherently broader appeal," said Pam Levine, Fox's co-president of domestic marketing. "The audience really responds to the unique, compelling visual style and narrative -- it just doesn't look like anything you've seen before."
The PG-13-rated "W.," which Stone shot in 46 days and rushed into the market for the campaign's final stretch, features Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, James Cromwell as George H.W. Bush and Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice -- the biggest Hollywood upgrade since Robert Downey Jr. was cast as Times columnist Steve Lopez in "The Soloist."
"W.," which critics have called a surprisingly evenhanded account from the controversial director of "JFK" and "Nixon," was produced for $30 million. QED International arranged the financing with partners from Hong Kong, Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere, with Australia's Omnilab Media investing an additional $25 million or so for marketing. Lionsgate is distributing the film for a fee and isn't putting up any of the print and ad costs but has a tiny production investment in the film.
A few political films have clicked with audiences in recent years, including the star-packed "Charlie Wilson's War," but tracking for "W." looks ho-hum, perhaps reflecting the president's reeling popularity. A glimmer of hope is that Bush has been, you know, "misunderestimated" before.
"The Secret Life of Bees," starring Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo and Alicia Keys, was produced for a reported $11 million. It will benefit from a dearth of movies in the market aimed at females.
"Sex Drive," an R-rated "American Pie" meets "The Sure Thing" -- try to keep up with Projector's old-school references, please -- was produced for $19 million. The picture is tracking to open in the mid-single digits, but Summit Entertainment distribution chief Richie Fay is guardedly optimistic, noting the generally warm responses to last weekend's sneak previews.
"If it opens in the $7-million-to-$8-million area, exhibition will be encouraged to keep us around and we could possibly get on a roll," Fay said.
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The thriller "Max Payne" is expected to top this weekend's box-office results, while prospects for Oliver Stone's political biography "W." look uncertain. Along with the films listed below, contenders to make the top 10 include "The Duchess," "Appaloosa," "Fireproof" and "Nights in Rodanthe." These figures are The Times' predictions. Studios will issue weekend estimates Sunday and actual results Monday.
*--* Movie 3-day prediction Through the Weeks (studio) (millions) weekend
1 Max Payne (20th Century Fox) $22.4 $22.4 1
2 The Secret Life of Bees 12.2 12.2 1 (Fox Searchlight)
3 Beverly Hills Chihuahua 10.6 68.2 3 (Disney)
4 W. (Lionsgate) 9.8 9.8 1
5 Body of Lies (Warner Bros.) 7.1 24.6 2
6 Quarantine (Sony) 6.8 25.1 2
7 Eagle Eye 6.2 80.0 4 (DreamWorks/Paramount)
8 Sex Drive (Summit) 4.6 4.6 1
9 Nick & Norah's Infinite 3.7 26.4 3 Playlist (Sony)
10 The Express (Universal) 2.8 8.7 2 *--*
Source: Times research
Los Angeles Times