Expendables 2 Wheezes to a Win, As People Still Dare to Go to the Movies

With the box office up 31% from last year, Sly Stallone and his antique musclemen take the weekend, while the kids go to 'ParaNorman' and their moms see 'Sparkle'

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Chuck Norris stars as 'Booker' in The Expendables 2.

“What a crazy Friday,” Nikki Finke wrote early Saturday on her popular Deadline Hollywood blog. “First came that morning’s bomb scare phoned into the Carmike Cinema chain. Then a consulting firm Screen Engine poll finds 17% of filmgoers are still reluctant to head to theaters, only slightly better than the 21% recorded four weeks ago right after the Aurora movie theater shooting. (The surveys found that teenagers, particularly females, were most reluctant to go to the movie now.) At least there’s no more Olympics. But post-10 PM screenings were still weak after I first reported the phenom last weekend.”

It got crazier. For all the dire portents — including that phone call threatening havoc to all Carmike theaters showing The Expendables 2, and the arrest in Columbus, Ga., of an armed man trying to sneak in an early showing of the same movie — attendance at the North American box office was up 31% over the same weekend last year, from $97 million to about $127 million. Instead of four films topping the $10-million mark, as happened in the mid-August weekend of 2011, seven managed the feat this time. And one of those movies, Sparkle, attracted an audience that was 74% female. It seems that, no matter what the scare headlines, invoking the slaughter at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises four weeks ago, people still dare to get their entertainment at the multiplex.

(READ: Corliss on The Dark Knight Rises and the ‘Aurora Effect’)

As for the reputed drop in showings after 10 p.m.: Who goes to those anyway? Not that much of the audience for The Expendables 2, the 66-year-old Sylvester Stallone’s sequel to his 2010 reunion of venerable action stars. The film’s weekend demographic was, by Hollywood standards, geriatric: 65% over the age of 25 (and 63% male). The movie’s $28.75-million take, enough to win the weekend according to preliminary studio estimates, was significantly behind the $34.8 million opening gross of its predecessor, which went on to earn $103.4 million at the domestic box office. For Sly’s over-the-hill romp to make a profit on its $90-million production cost, it will need help from the foreign markets, which is doable; the first Expendables amassed more than 60% of its revenue overseas.

(SEE: Which Expendables Star Is the Most Expendable?)

The film certainly appealed to its customers, who gave it an A-minus CinemaScore rating. And critics, who might have been expected to use The Expendables 2 as a piñata for everything they hate about big, dumb summer movies, instead reacted indulgently, handing it a 67% positive mark on the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate-review site. With this encouragement, Stallone must already be dreaming of an Expendables 3. Considering that he extended his Rocky franchise for 30 years (from 1976 to 2006) and his Rambo series 26 years (1982-2008), Sly could be playing Barney Ross well into his nineties, when he and his co-starring Expendables have long since become the Uninsurables.

(READ: Steven James Snyder’s review of Expendables 2

Another muscle-man epic, The Bourne Legacy, dropped to second place, with $17 million. Last weekend the Jeremy Renner spy conundrum replaced the three-week champ The Dark Knight Rises in the No. 1 slot; but Christopher Nolan’s wrapup to his Batman trilogy is doing fine, thanks, if not quite super-blockbuster spectacular. With $409.9 million in the North American till after 31 days, TDKR has passed The Hunger Games ($407.7 million since its March opening) as the second biggest hit of 2012. Still, that’s less than two-thirds the gross of the year’s top film, The Avengers ($617.6), and well below the 31-day total of $471.1 million earned by The Dark Knight, its 2008 predecessor. So far, TDKR has taken in $445.3 million overseas for an $855.2 million global gross. Prospects are slim to some that it will match The Dark Knight’s $1-billion worldwide finish.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Dark Knight RisesTwo new films for children finished third and seventh, respectively. ParaNorman, a 3-D stop-motion feature from the producers of the 2009 Coraline, earned $24 million and benefited from the usual bump a kid-friendly movie gets on Saturdays; it was up 18%. Early attendees, mostly youngsters, rated the film a medium B-plus in the CinemaScore survey. That was a lower ranking than the A-minus pulled by The Odd Life of Timothy Green, the Disney tale of a boy who comes into the life of a couple desperately wishing for a child. Opening Wednesday, Timothy earned $10.9 for the weekend, $15.2 million for its first five days.(READ: How They Made ParaNorman)

Moms may have parked their kids at either ParaNorman or Timothy Green and gone off to see Sparkle, a remake of the 1976 movie about a vocal group quite like The Supremes (this five years before Dreamgirls, the Broadway retelling of the same showbiz legend). Starring Jordan Sparks, the elaborately dimpled winner of American Idol’s sixth season, and Whitney Houston in her last role before her February death, Sparkle earned a semi-tuneful $12 million. Its audience, 62% of which was over 25, awarded the film a shiny “A” on CinemaScore.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Sparkle)

In a busy frame for indie debuts, David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, starring Robert Pattinson as a Wall Street billionaire taking a limo trip through urban chaos, led the way, picking up $72,300 at three drive-throughs. RPattz, wincing from the tabloid tattle about his girlfriend Kstew (Kristen Stewart), manfully braved a media-interview barrage and boosted Cosmopolis to the weekend’s top per-screen average. The film’s chance to build on its impressive opening depends on whether the Twilight star can lure the series’ fans to a weird little project where the only vampirism is metaphorical.

(READ: Pattinson’s and Cronenberg on Cosmopolis by subscribing to TIME) 

Also clicking at the art houses was Robot & Frank, a buddy-heist comedy starring Frank Langella as an aging burglar given a robot as a companion and abettor; it filched a slick $38,000 at two theaters. Compliance, the creepy, fact-based thriller about some fast-food employees terrified by a mysterious phone caller (demanding the arrest of an employee, not the evacuation of movie houses), bagged $16,000 at just one venue, while also playing for home viewers on Video on Demand. Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian refugee whose autobiographical Persepolis earned $4.4 million at North American theaters and was Oscar-nominated for the best animated feature of 2007, moved to live action in Chicken With Plums; it cooked up a modest $11,200, on two screens, to add to the $42,200 it had previously tallied in Canada.

The big indie hit was 2016: Obama’s America, author Dinesh D’Souza’s cinematic update of his 2010 best-seller The Roots of Obama’s Rage. Expanding from 51 to 169 theaters, the political-disaster doc earned an extremely solid $1.25 million, for 13th place on the weekend box-office list and a six-week haul of $2.1 million. That’s a higher gross than for indie romances like Your Sister’s Sister and Ruby Sparks, and 18 times the total take of last summer’s Sarah Palin hagiography The Undefeated. Political documentaries are typically liberal; conservatives are happy to get their info from talk radio and Fox News. So 2016, which foresees an end-of-times if the President is reelected, could tilt the doc field rightward, and stoke some Leftie documentarian to rush out an answer film — something like 2012: The Roots of D’Souza’s Wrath.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Undefeated)Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:1. The Expendables 2, $18.75 million, first weekend

2. The Bourne Legacy, $17 million; $69.6 million, second week

3. ParaNorman, $14 million, first weekend

4. The Campaign, $13.4 million; $51.7 million, second week

5. Sparkle, $12 million, first weekend

6. The Dark Knight Rises, $11.1 million; $409.9 million, fifth week

7. The Odd Life of Timothy Green, $10.9 million, first weekend; $15.2 million, first five days

8. Hope Springs, $9.1 million; $35 million, second week

9. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, $3.85 million; $38.8 million, week

10. Total Recall, $3.5 million; $51.8 million, third week