But Disney's ''Snow Dogs'' will mush to the middle of the pack, behind hobbits and Russell Crowe
Black Hawk Down

This should be the weekend ”Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” finally stops lording it over the box office, as Strider the Ranger and the black riders face their first serious challenge from Army Rangers and Black Hawk helicopters.

”Black Hawk Down,” which opened in limited release last month to qualify for Oscars, is launching a full-scale assault on the nation’s multiplexes (3,101 screens, the largest January launch ever). Despite its lack of star names (Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, and Sam Shepard head a cast of mostly anonymous grunts) and its downer premise (the true story of the 1993 Somalian raid that cost the lives of 18 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Somalis), ”Black Hawk” will draw young men away from Frodo & Co. with its near nonstop action, timely patriotism, Oscar buzz, and brand-name filmmakers (”Armageddon” and ”Pearl Harbor” explosion king Jerry Bruckheimer produced it, and ”Gladiator”’s Ridley Scott directed). Still, expect the film’s ticket sales to be dampened by the usual January doldrums and weekend football playoffs, leading to a $20 million take for the No. 1 spot.

But don’t forget ”Rings,” which, after topping the box office four weeks in a row, has enough momentum to land at No. 2. A drop of 25 percent from last weekend would result in a $12 million bounty. Meanwhile. last weekend’s No. 2, ”A Beautiful Mind,” with its heavy Oscar buzz and strong word-of-mouth for Russell Crowe’s performance, is still peaking after just two weeks in wide release. It should experience a similarly small drop, landing at No. 3 with just under $12 million.

The weekend’s other major new release is the Disney dogsled comedy ”Snow Dogs.” It’s opening on 2,300 screens, in the hopes of drumming up the same kind of business that kiddie comedy ”Snow Day” did at this time two winters ago. Certainly, adults aren’t going to be interested in this kind of mush, and kids won’t be impressed by the presence of Oscar winners Cuba Gooding Jr. and James Coburn. But the absence of family-friendly competition (the kids have probably already seen ”Harry Potter,” ”Monsters, Inc.,” and ”Jimmy Neutron”) should allow it to open with $10 million.

Still, the only race these huskies are likely to win is the one for fourth place against last weekend’s newcomer ”Orange County,” which should drop 40 percent to squeeze out $9 million and wrap up the top five.

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A Beautiful Mind
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