Steven Seagal makes grand "Exit" at box office

Steven Seagal makes grand "Exit" at box office

Just when everyone thought his career was over, action star Steven Seagal launched a box office comeback this weekend when cop thriller "Exit Wounds" debuted at No. 1 with a record haul for the actor.

The Warner Bros. feature - Seagal's first movie in four years - grossed $19 million from North American theaters for the Friday-to-Sunday period, enjoying a comfortable lead over the World War II drama "Enemy at the Gates" (Paramount), which opened at No. 2 with $13.6 million, according to studio estimates on Sunday.

"The Mexican" (DreamWorks), starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, slipped to No. 3 with $8.1 million after two weekends at No. 1.

With one week until the Academy Awards on March 25, two best picture Oscar nominees passed the century mark this weekend: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (Sony Pictures Classics) and "Traffic" (USA Films).

The top 12 films grossed about $73.6 million, up almost 18 percent over last weekend, but down about 1 percent from the year-ago period, when Roberts' "Erin Brockovich" opened at No. 1 with $28 million, on the way to five Oscar nominations.

It was clearly Seagal's weekend to shine. The 49-year-old former martial arts instructor lost some weight, ditched his ponytail and cannily reached out to a younger generation by teaming up with rap star DMX for "Exit Wounds," a thriller about crooked cops and evil crooks.

The last time Seagal was in theaters was with "Fire Down Below," which opened to $6.1 million in September 1997 and ended up with about $16 million. He did star in a low-budget thriller "The Patriot" in 1998, but it went straight to video. Until this weekend, his best opening was for "Under Siege," which opened with $14 million in 1992.

"Steven's thrilled ... very excited," said Dan Fellman, president of distribution at Warner Bros., a unit of AOL Time Warner Inc. .

The film cost under $40 million to make, and also marks the sixth consecutive No. 1 for producer Joel Silver, the man behind such hits as "Romeo Must Die," "The Matrix" and "Lethal Weapon 4." Both "Exit Wounds" and "Romeo Must Die" were directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak.

Fellman said "Exit Wounds" received a very strong response in the black community, and pulled in a surprisingly high proportion of female moviegoers. Exit polling indicated that both genders liked it equally.

"Enemy at the Gates," which revolves around a duel between a Russian and German sniper (played by Jude Law and Ed Harris, respectively) during the Battle of Stalingrad, predictably pulled in more males and rated more strongly with older audiences, a Paramount spokeswoman said.

The film also stars Joseph Fiennes, who competes with Law's character for the affections of a Russian recruit played by Rachel Weisz. Frenchman Jean-Jacques Annaud ("Seven Years in Tibet") produced and directed.

"Enemy" cost about $70 million to make, but Paramount picked up North American rights for less than $10 million from studio-based producer Mandalay Pictures, the spokeswoman said.

The film opened in just 1,509 theaters, the lowest count in the top 10, and accordingly posted the highest average, $9,013. By contrast, "Exit Wounds" averaged $6,723 from 2,830 theaters. "Enemy" will expand to nearly 2,000 theaters next weekend, said Paramount vice-chairman Rob Friedman. Paramount is a unit of Viacom Inc. .

"The Mexican," playing at the most theaters in the top 10 - 3,162, up 203 from last weekend - has grossed $50.9 million after 17 days.

The canine caper "See Spot Run" (Warner Bros.) slipped one place to No. 4 with $5.2 million, taking its 17-day total to $25 million. Fellman expected the low-budget comedy would surpass $40 million.

But things were not quite rosy for corporate sibling New Line Cinema's "15 Minutes," which fell three places to No. 5 with $4.4 million in its second weekend. The Robert De Niro/ Edward Burns thriller lost 59 percent of its audience from last weekend, the steepest drop in the top 10, and has earned just $18 million after 10 days.

The martial arts romance "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" held steady at No. 6 with $4.1 million after 101 days, and was expected to end Sunday with $100.4 million in the till. The film is up for 10 Academy Awards, including best picture, foreign-language picture and director (Ang Lee).

The drug saga "Traffic" passed the century mark on Saturday, its 81st day, and now has $102.5 million in the bank. This weekend, the five-time Oscar contender grossed $3.4 million, sharing the No. 9 spot with fellow best picture nominee "Chocolat" (Miramax).

Sony Pictures Classics is a unit of Sony Corp. , USA Films is a unit of USA Networks Inc. , Miramax Films is a unit of Walt Disney Co . DreamWorks SKG is privately held.

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