Box Office: Unknown No. 1, Is Number Four No. 2?

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Jay Maidment / Dark Castle Entertainment / Reuters

Liam Neeson in Unknown.

Four films are bunched near the top of the preliminary tally of weekend grosses for this year's President's Day box office. The Liam Neeson thriller Unknown leads the charge at North American theaters with $21.8 million, according to the studio's Sunday morning estimates, closely followed by the fantasy epic I Am Number Four ($19.5 million) and two holdovers from last week: the 3-D cartoon Gnomeo & Juliet ($19.4 million) and the Adam Sandler-Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy Just Go With It ($18.2 million).

How to make sense of all this, with a tight race entering the holiday Monday, and final figures not to be announced until Tuesday? We wanted to ask someone famed for the clarity of his strategic analysis: former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Here's what we thought he might say:

"You have the known known, which is that Unknown will be no. 1. Then there are the known unknowns, which is that Number Four is tenuously no. 2. But there are also the known gnomes — the lawn ornaments in Gnomeo & Juliet — who are no. 3 today but might finish at no. 2 by staging a little-people's insurgency tomorrow, with all the kids out of school. And finally there's the unknown unknown: the continued strength of Just Go With It, which might also enjoy a strong Monday and sneak into the no. 3 slot. That would mean that Number Four will sink to no. 4. But until Tuesday, when the actual grosses for the four-day weekend come out, everything is unknown. Except that the no. 1 film will be Unknown."

Thank you, Mr. Rumsfeld — who, if he went to a movie this weekend, probably saw the Roman epic The Eagle, which at the moment is hiding in a secure location: ninth place. The rest of the movie audience fanned out to a wide variety of genres, with six films earning at least $12 million for the first time since last July. The fifth and sixth finishers this weekend are Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son — Martin Lawrence's third try at a black-comic-in-a-fat-woman's-suit genre also inhabited by Eddie Murphy and Tyler Perry — and the one-weekend movie wonder Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, which exhausted its teenybopper fan base in its first few days and dropped nearly 60% this weekend. Over all, box-office revenue was down about 28% from last year's President's Day skein, which also included Valentine's Day and gave a big boost to the rom-com of the same title. We'll alert you to this weekend's final results when they are posted.

[UPDATE: In the four-day weekend's final numbers, made public Tuesday, less than $30,000, or about a tenth of one percent, separated the top two films: Unknown with $25,453,015 and Gnomeo & Juliet with $25,415,717. I Am Number Four disappointed numerologists by landing in the no. 3 slot, with $22.8 million, safely ahead of Just Go With Itís $21.6 million. The other new release, Big Mommas: Like Father Like Son, finished fifth with $17.3 million.]

Of the new entries, only Unknown, with Neeson playing a botany professor who loses his wife and his identity on a trip to Berlin, exceeded industry predictions. Like the 2009 hit Taken, this is a low-budget ($30 million) action film that sends its star scurrying around a European capital to find a secret and kill all the bad guys. Unknown is unlikely to match Taken's burly $145-million domestic gross, but it shows that the 58-year-old Irishman has found a sturdy niche as the thinking man's Harrison Ford.

I Am Number Four, based on the Pittacus Lore young-adult fantasy books, was DreamWorks' shot at a Twilight or Marvel-type franchise, and 20-year-old Anglo hunk Alex Pettyfer's dice roll to be this year's Robert Pattinson. Early returns suggest that the attempt fizzled. Number Four, which cost as much as Unknown and Big Mommas combined, was pegged to earn at least $30 million over the four-day span but will struggle to reach $25 million.

Pettyfer gets a second chance to make a first impression in two weeks, when he stars in another adaptation of a young-adult best-seller and is transformed from beautiful to Beastly. For now, though, he should prepare to end this long weekend behind Disney's Gnome Story, which dipped a wee 23.5% from last week's opening frame and looks to be around for a while — at least until the Johnny Depp animated Western comedy Rango opens on Mar. 4.

Among the 2010 films vying for Academy Awards, Black Swan (presumptive Best Actress Natalie Portman) passed the $100-million mark; The Fighter (Supporting Actor Christian Bale) is nearing $90 million; and True Grit (possible Supporting Actress upset candidate Hailee Steinfeld) has amassed a total of $164.1 million, which is more than double the take of the Coen brothers' previous high grosser, the 2008 Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men.

But the big news remains The King's Speech, the only Academy top contender to make this week's top 10. Having earned $103.3 million in North America, and $106 million abroad, the Best Picture favorite is taking an early victory lap. You can count on the film's getting plenty of free publicity next Sunday, Oscar night, when its star, its screenwriter and its producers come on stage to pick up their statuettes. And that is a known known.

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

1. Unknown, $21.7 million, first weekend
2. I Am Number Four, $19.5 million, first weekend
3. Gnomeo & Juliet, $19.4 million; $50.4 million, second week
4. Just Go With It, $18.2 million; $60.8 million, second week
5. Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son, $17 million, first weekend
6. Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, $13.6 million; $48.5 million, second week
7. The King's Speech, $6.6 million; $103.3 million, 13th week
8. The Roommate, $4.1 million; $32.7 million, third week
9. The Eagle, $3.6 million; $15 million, second week
10. No Strings Attached, $3.2 million; $66 million, fifth week