Avatar Pushes Mel Gibson Off the Edge

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20th Century Fox

James Cameron's Avatar

From the moment of its release on Dec. 18, James Cameron's Avatar has monopolized the top box-office spot like some gigantic truck that not only takes up two lanes but also drives everyone else off the highway. To stop a road hog, send out a road warrior: the one and only Mad Max, Mel Gibson, a bona fide movie icon playing a trademark haunted-hero role in Edge of Darkness, his first starring role since Signs in 2002.

No matter. Avatar sent Gibson into a ditch, earning $30 million, according to early studio estimates, bringing its 45-day total in North American theaters to $594.5 million. On Tuesday, Feb. 2, it should pass the $600.8 million amassed in 1997-98 by Cameron's own Titanic and become the all-time domestic box-office champ (in fake dollars). In theaters worldwide, Avatar is already the all-time No. 1 and the first picture ever to cross the $2 billion mark. Since the movie's earnings fell only 14% from last weekend's — every other returning film in this week's top 10 saw at least twice as big a drop — the Avatar avalanche will continue for another few weeks. The only dents Cameron suffered this week were to his pride: Avatar lost the top awards given out by the directors' and producers' guild to the Iraq-war drama The Hurt Locker, directed by Cameron's ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow.

Gibson, 54, who seven years ago turned from starring in hit movies to directing The Passion of the Christ, the all-time top R-rated and foreign-language film, became more notorious recently for being an off-screen road warrior. His 2006 drunk-driving conviction, and the slurs he made about Jews to the arresting officer, dented his rep and put a big question mark next to his chances for returning to the superstar class. Edge of Darkness, based on a 1985 Brit TV drama about a cop searching for his daughter's killers, bears a resemblance to last year's Liam Neeson hit Taken. But it's also the umpteenth recent movie to deal with grieving over a lost loved one (Brothers, A Single Man, Broken Flowers, even Up) and at least the fourth (after The Lovely Bones, Creation and Nine) in which the dead communicate to the living. Audiences may have tired of the high mope factor in these movies; they'd prefer to see an action star spending less time at seances and more at old-fashioned ass-whups.

Warner Bros., which released Edge of Darkness, surely hoped the Gibson movie would do the business of the studio's first 2010 hit, The Book of Eli, the postdoomsday Western starring Denzel Washington, 55. In its third week, Eli has earned nearly $75 million. Instead, Edge looks to approximate the mediocre gross of last year's State of Play, also based on a six-part BBC political thriller, and also starring an Oscar winner (Russell Crowe) in need of a hit. Tip to Hollywood remakers who try synopsizing the madly complex plot of an acclaimed British mini: at least change the title so it doesn't contain two bland nouns separated by an of; titles like Edge of Darkness and State of Play are foggy and instantly forgettable. Second tip: Don't bother.

Gibson and Washington weren't the only veteran movie men fighting for tickets at the wickets. Just out of this weekend's top dozen were two movies starring flinty hero types who made their names in the 1970s. Sixty-seven-year-old Harrison Ford, a.k.a. Han Solo, lent his sullen machismo to Extraordinary Measures, the first theatrical release from CBS Films — but this do-gooder drama had a made-for-TV feel, and after a cruddy opening week, it fell into the abyss, with a $2,575,000 weekend take in 2,549 theaters. The disease-of-the-week movie has no miracle treatment in sight; expect it to expire shortly.

Immediately behind Extraordinary Measures was the indie-vibed Crazy Heart, which earned $2,250,000 on 239 screens — fewer than a tenth of the venues for Ford's Edsel. Crazy Heart, with Jeff Bridges as an aging country singer reappraising his misspent life, was originally intended go to directly to TV, yet it's now a warm-to-hot item, thanks to Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild trophies for its star. Bridges, 60, is one of Hollywood's most liked and admired leading men. Most durable too: he received his first Academy Award nomination back in 1972 (for Supporting Actor in The Last Picture Show). Crazy Heart has made him a favorite to win Best Actor on March 7 — the night Cameron will find out whether the near trillions Avatar has amassed in box-office gelt translate to Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture.

Here are the weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by BoxOfficeMojo.com:

1. Avatar, $30 million; $594.5 million, seventh week
2. Edge of Darkness, $17.1 million, first weekend
3. When in Rome, $12.1 million, first weekend
4. Tooth Fairy, $10 million; $26.1 million, second week
5. The Book of Eli, $8.8 million; $74.4 million, third week
6. Legion, $6.8 million; $28.6 million, second week
7. The Lovely Bones, $4.7 million; $38 million, eighth week
8. Sherlock Holmes, $4.5 million; $197.6 million, sixth week
9. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, $4 million; $209.3 million, sixth week
10. It's Complicated, $3.7 million; $104 million, sixth week