Lone Survivor SEALs a Big Win for Mark Wahlberg

The Afghan-war movie declares victory over 'The Legend of Hercules'

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The U.S. government has precious few wins to boast of in its past dozen years of West Asian military engagements, but at least Hollywood can proclaim victory over the Taliban. Lone Survivor, based on Marcus Luttrell’s memoir of a Navy SEAL sortie in Afghanistan, earned a macho $38.5 million at North American theaters, according to preliminary studio estimates, to become the first smash hit of 2014.

The weekend’s only new saturation release, The Legend of Hercules, showed little muscle, with an $8.6 million first three days. Of the Oscar hopefuls crashing more theaters, the star-laden August: Osage County reaped a solid $7.3 million on 905 screens. In nearly twice as many venues (1,729), the Spike Jonze rom.com her expanded to a very lower-case $5.4 million.

Two other awards contenders — indeed, vying for the Best Comedy or Musical prize at this evening’s Golden Globes — held strong. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street finished in third place this weekend, and David O. Russell’s American Hustle is tied for fourth. In its fourth week of wide release, Hustle swanned past the $100 million threshold; it could double that amount before it’s through.

[MONDAY UPDATE: According to the final figures issued this afternoon, Lone Survivor actually earned $37.8 million, about 2% below its Sunday estimate. The Legend of Hercules grossed $8.87 million, up 3% from yesterday’s forecast, to overtake both The Wolf of Wall Street ($8.84 million) and American Hustle ($8.3 million) and finish in third place.]

(MORE: Corliss Reviews The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle

All rivals must surrender to Lone Survivor, whose gross in its first weekend of wide release (after playing for two weeks in two theaters) nearly matched its $40 million production budget. Peter Berg’s no-nonsense grunt drama about a quartet of SEALs in a botched surveillance of a Taliban village proves again that America — i.e., that great expanse of traditional values between the two liberal coasts — loves heroic war movies. The point of comparison is from February 2012, when Act of Valor, a Pentagon recruitment commercial with no stars and a low budget ($12 million), enjoyed a $24.5 million opening weekend on its way to a $70 million domestic gross.

(MORE: The Trained SEALs of Act of Valor)

To get from the Act of Valor’s opening number to Lone Survivor’s, just add Mark Wahlberg — a genuine, under-the-radar audience magnet. Sometimes he teams productively with older stars (Will Ferrell in The Other Guys, Denzel Washington in 2 Guns) or with a potty-mouthed toy animal (Ted). And often Wahlberg goes it alone, in modestly budgeted action films; Contraband, which opened two years ago this weekend, cost just $25 million to produce and earned nearly $100 million worldwide. He also keeps on working: Lone Survivor, which began its limited run on Dec. 25, was his fourth film released in 2013. Lacking the DiCaprio dazzle, the Depp éclat, Wahlberg is all hustle and muscle — the lunch-pail movie star.

(MORE: Corliss Reviews Lone Survivor)

Attracting some of its biggest audiences in theaters near military bases, Lone Survivor played like “The Star-Spangled Banner”: it gleaned a rare A-plus rating from the CinemaScore poll of first-night viewers. The attendees were 57% male, 57% over the age of 35, 48% Caucasian, 32% Hispanic and 9% African American — very roughly, the demographic of the fathers of the soldiers who volunteered to fight George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s wars.

(MORE: All-TIME Top Movies Set in Iraq)

If Mark is the spark of this weekend’s box office, then Herc is the jerk. (And its star, Kellan Lutz? Never mind.) This $70 million bomb from onetime hitmaker Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, The Deep Blue Sea) is almost as cheesy, but not nearly so much fun, as the couple dozen Hercules films that Italy knocked out in the late-’50s and ’60s. Borrowing the feuding half-brother motif of Marvel’s Thor adventures, and the green-screen battle-scene technique of 300, didn’t help. From its sparse crowds, The Legend pulled at B-minus CinemaScore.

(MORE: Is The Legend of Hercules an Instant Remake of 47 Ronin?)

That is the same rating, surprisingly, that audiences gave to the reviewers’ darling Her. Jonze’s dreamy tale of a lonely guy who falls in love with his OS voice, her won a bunch of awards from critics’ groups — best film, director, screenplay and supporting actress (for the unseen Scarlett Johansson) — but, so far, is not clicking. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a lot of people aren’t just indifferent to this high-concept sci-fi movie; they actively dislike it.

(MORE: Corliss Reviews Her)

Contrast that to the response for August: Osage County, which roared into expanded release after an Oscar-qualifying run in New York City and Los Angeles. The Weinstein Co.’s Harvey Weinstein, a producer of the 2008 Pulitzer- and Tony-winning hit play, nurtured the property into a faithful film version with an embarrassment of Hollywood royalty in the cast, led by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. If those ladies win Academy nominations this Thursday, it could be August from January through March 2: Oscar night.

(MORE: Richard Zoglin on the August: Osage County Play)

The movie was not universally cherished by critics, but the pearly A-minus CinemaScore points to a surge for Osage. Despite its Broadway pedigree, this story of a belligerent but loving Oklahoma family could connect with the Middle Americans who made Lone Survivor a hit. That would be fine by Weinstein — who, like any Navy SEAL, is always prepared to fight for a good cause.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Lone Survivor, $38.5 million, first weekend
2. Frozen, $15.1 million; $317.7 million, eighth week
3. The Wolf of Wall Street, $9 million; $78.6 million, third week
4. American Hustle, $8.6 million; $101.6 million, fifth week
5. The Legend of Hercules, $8.6 million, first weekend
6. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, $8 million; $242.2 million, fifth week
7. August: Osage County, $7.3 million; $7.9 million, third week
8. Saving Mr. Banks, $6.6 million; $68.9 million, fifth week
9. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, $6.3 million; $28.5 million, second week
10. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, $5.4 million; $118.5 million, fourth week