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''Perfect Storm'' tops ''The Patriot''

The July 4 box office take is headed for a record

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George Clooney, The Perfect Storm
Storm: Claudette Barius

Independence Day was primed for ”The Patriot”’s fireworks, but it was ”The Perfect Storm” that lit up the box office over the long weekend. The George Clooney/ Mark Wahlberg ”disaster at sea” drama, which opened June 30, earned an estimated $64 million in its first five days in theaters, making it the third best Fourth of July debut in history, after ”Men in Black” (’97) and ”Independence Day” (’96). While ”Storm”’s surge was strong enough to thoroughly douse ”The Patriot,” the Mel Gibson war drama grossed a more than respectable $35.2 million since its June 28 opening. Though some box office analysts predict that ”The Patriot” could eventually equal or outperform ”Storm,” they say its initial weekend take was hurt by its R rating and longer running time. The holiday weekend’s other new film, ”The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle,” lagged behind in fifth place with a disappointing $11.0 million.

The overall box office — driven by the twin debuts of big budget action films as well as hearty holdover titles — may be headed for a July 4 record. According to the tracking firm Exhibitor Relations, the top 12 movies generated $121.8 million, up 5.3 percent from last year. Of the early summer releases, two are nearing milestones: ”Mission: Impossible 2”’s total gross is expected to hit $200 million by this coming weekend, and ”Big Momma’s House,” the summer’s top grossing comedy, should hit $100 million.

CRITICAL MASS ”The Perfect Storm” may have won this weekend’s box office skirmish, but ”The Patriot” seems poised to endure a long term summer battle. Though historians and critics are debating the script’s accuracy, reviewers generally praised ”The Patriot”’s sweeping action sequences as well as the eye-catching supporting performances by Heath Ledger, who plays Gibson’s headstrong son, and British actor Jason Isaacs as the sneering villain. EW Online readers liked both films, giving the Clooney-Wahlberg starrer a solid B, and favoring ”The Patriot” with a B+. ”Patriot” also looks to do better with repeat ticket buyers: 43 percent of its fans say they’re very likely to see it again, compared with 29 percent of ”Storm”’s audience. Meanwhile, ”Rocky and Bullwinkle” got clobbered by the critics, who granted it a tepid C- average. Ticket buyers, though, were kinder to this blend of live action and animation, giving it a grade of B.

Though this weekend’s duel between Clooney and Gibson got the most attention from box office analysts, there’s another story brewing in the box office charts. Last week’s champion, ”Me, Myself & Irene,” lost 47 percent of its audience, earning $19.5 million. The Jim Carrey comedy was edged out for the third spot by ”Chicken Run,” which has earned a plump $49.4 million in 14 days of release. A family friendly yet hip feature from the British creators of the Wallace and Gromit cartoons, ”Chicken Run” fell just 25 percent from last weekend — the best second-week performance in the top 10. Still, next week’s new releases may cut into both films, with gross out comedy fans heading to ”Scary Movie,” a raunchy horror spoof from the Wayans brothers, and families flocking to Disney’s ”The Kid,” a comedy starring Bruce Willis and a smart-mouthed child actor with a bowl haircut.

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