Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.
This summer's spy games take on Olympian proportions this weekend as a muscle-bound extreme sportsman and two pint-sized secret agents separately fight to save the world from the forces of evil.
Together, though, XXX and Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams should drive the masses to movie theaters in extraordinary numbers. If this isn't enough, Clint Eastwood hunts down another serial killer in the crime thriller Blood Work.
XXX, a potential franchise a la James Bond for Sony Pictures, arrives with a big bang courtesy of the long and overwhelming marketing campaign revolving around the tattooed body of superstar-in-the-making Vin Diesel.
The summer's last potential blockbuster, XXX should easily outgun a sequel aimed primarily at children who will return to school later this month. Spy Kids 2 rushes into theaters less than 18 months after its predecessor, but may prove just what children want to see after dismissing Stuart Little 2, The Country Bears, The Powerpuff Girls Movie and Hey Arnold! The Movie.
A few years back, Sony failed in its bid to launch its own James Bond franchise. Hence the blatant 007-ish XXX, the first of what Sony executives anticipate will become a series anchored by a spy with supposedly very little in common with the suave and sophisticated British secret agent. Diesel's Xander Cage is an adrenaline junkie who exploits his passion for extreme sports to tweak the establishment. The prospect of a long prison sentence forces Diesel to become a secret agent under the command of the unbilled Samuel L. Jackson. Diesel's mission: Get the dirt on a group of pierced anarchists operating in Prague, Czech Republic.
The success of this Generation X spy franchise rests on Diesel's very broad shoulders. He reportedly received $10 million for XXX, an indication that Sony executives believe that Diesel was mostly responsible for the runaway smash that was last summer's The Fast and the Furious. He certainly throws himself in the thick of the action, be it tumbling out of airplanes or seducing women in the name of his country. He's aided and abetted by Rob Cohen, who directed The Fast and the Furious. The result is loud, dumb but occasionally fun.
As far as charisma goes, the monosyllabic Diesel comes across as nothing more than a 21st-century Sylvester Stallone. But Diesel will win over men with his devil-may-care attitude and charm women with his considerable sex appeal. Older adults weaned on James Bond might want to see what all the fuss is about while they wait patiently for November's Die Another Day, but they should walk away feeling cheated by XXX's sub-Bondian plot, unworthy villain and unappealing love interest.
The Fast and the Furious roared out of nowhere in June 2001 to score an astounding $40 million opening and a $144.5 million total. That was unexpected given that Diesel's previous two starring efforts were the modest hit Pitch Black ($39.2 million total) and the Wall Street-inspired flop Boiler Room ($16.9 million). Diesel's Knockaround Guys, made in 1999 before he tore up the streets in The Fast and the Furious, has yet to see the light of day.
The acceptance of such serious spy fare as The Sum of All Fears ($117.8 million) and The Bourne Identity ($113.1 million), featuring a new generation of action heroes, bodes extremely well for XXX, which slammed into 3,374 theaters on Friday with an audience-friendly PG-13 rating. XXX should gun down between $45 million and $50 million. The Scorpion King's $36 million opening also showed that audiences wanted to see how well wrestler The Rock could body slam his movie foes. So anything less than an opening better than The Fast and the Furious' $40 million would be a disappointment for XXX.
XXX also has the advantage of being the summer's last big offering. That worked in August 2001 to American Pie 2's advantage. The R-rated sequel opened with $45.1 million and held steady throughout the waning days of summer to tally a $145 million total. XXX, which faces little competition in the coming weeks, will likely enjoy the same fate.
All told, XXX should wind up with $150 million, paving the way for a franchise. It also would help the future of two other unreleased Diesel offerings, the aforementioned Knockaround Guys and an untitled drug thriller formerly known as Diablo. The oft-delayed Knockaround Guys is scheduled for an Oct. 11 release. Diesel's untitled thriller is set for March 7, 2003. Perhaps New Line has seemingly kept both on the shelf in order to make a quick buck or two in the wake of XXX's anticipated success.
The fate of the free world also lies in the hands of two spies certainly not old enough to sit behind the wheel of James Bond's famed Aston Martin.
In Spy Kids 2, the Cortez siblings roam around a monster-infested island in search of a destructive device called the Transmooker. Cortez parents and fellow spies Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino also return.
Bigger isn't always better, as the lackluster returns for Stuart Little 2 demonstrate. Spy Kids 2 must overcome extremely mediocre reviews in order to best its predecessor's $26.5 million opening and $112.6 million total. With children returning to school soon, Dimension Films opened Spy Kids 2 on Wednesday in 3,307 theaters to make the most of what's left of the summer holidays.
Spy Kids 2's $4.6 million Wednesday opening signals a three-day weekend of at least $20 million.
Dimension executives must be confident about Spy Kids 2. They have already ordered director Robert Rodriguez to get Spy Kids 3 into theaters on July 23, 2003. Rodriguez is going to have to pull a Steven Soderbergh, given that he is also working with Banderas on Once Upon a Time in Mexico for a 2003 release.
Banderas needs Spy Kids 2 to make an impact. He followed up Spy Kids with two bombs, Original Sin ($16.5 million) and the barely released The Body ($33,565).
The Cortez siblings will cause some headaches for comeback kid Dana Carvey.
Master of Disguise, which finds Carvey portraying an unlikely hero able to impersonate dozens of people, managed a solid $12.5 million debut last weekend against fellow ex-Saturday Night Live-er Mike Myers' Austin Powers in Goldmember.
That's Carvey's best solo opening, beating Opportunity Knocks' paltry $3.5 million opening in 1990. In fact, Master of Disguise grossed more than the combined openings of Carvey's three 1994 disasters, Clean Slate ($3.1 million), The Road to Wellville ($2.5 million) and Trapped in Paradise ($2.7 million). Carvey obviously made the right decision in persuading another SNL alumnus, Adam Sandler, to executive produce the family-friendly comedy.
This weekend will determine whether Master of Disguise appeals more to parents nostalgic for the days when Carvey ruled SNL or children willing to laugh at some good, clean fun. Spy Kids 2 will likely sap Master of Disguise of its core audience of children, causing a drop of at least 45 percent, or a second-weekend haul of $7 million. Still, with $17.4 million through Wednesday, Master of Disguise already represents Carvey's biggest solo success and should finish with a total close to $40 million.
Young children, though, are being terribly fickle about what they want to see during this second half of the summer.
Stuart Little is no longer the mouse that roared. Stuart Little 2 plunged 42 percent in its third weekend, from $10.6 million to $6.1 million, and has a disappointing $49.6 million through Wednesday. At this rate, Stuart Little 2 will barely make half of its predecessor's $140 million.
Singing bears aren't of much interest, either. The Country Bears collapsed by 41 percent in its second weekend, from $5.3 million to $3.1 million. The Disney theme park attraction spin-off has a tuneless $13.1 million through Wednesday. That's hardly enough to buy a pot or two of honey these days.
Clint Eastwood isn't going quietly into his twilight years. Since 1992's Oscar-winning Unforgiven, Eastwood now more often than not portrays heroic characters coming to terms with old age. Space Cowboys rocketed in 2000 to $90.4 million on the strength of catapulting Eastwood and three fellow grumpy old men into orbit.
In Blood Work, Eastwood is a retired FBI director and the recent recipient of a new heart that came from a murder victim. He's later hired to track down the victim's killer.
Based on a novel by Michael Connelly, and directed by Eastwood, Blood Work isn't likely to distinguish itself from Eastwood's numerous other crime thrillers. That will hurt Blood Work's chances at the box office. In recent years, audiences have embraced Eastwood when he plays atypical roles, such as Space Cowboys' astronaut, The Bridges of Madison County's photographer and Absolute Power's cat burglar.
Blood Work will more likely follow the path of 1999's True Crime, in which Eastwood played a has-been reporter investigating the guilt or innocence of a man on death row. True Crime opened with $5.2 million and amassed just $16.6 million.
Eastwood's one of the few actors of his age who can still sells tickets, so Blood Work could generate a modest $10 million from its 2,525 theaters. That would allow Blood Work to at least double True Crime's lowly total.
Helping Eastwood's cause: Tom Hanks' Road to Perdition is slowing down, having dropped 41 percent in its fourth weekend from $11.1 million to $6.6 million, for a total of $79.3 million through Wednesday.
Still, Eastwood must contend with Signs.
The alien invasion was greeted with a heavenly $60.1 million debut. That's the second-best August opening, behind Rush Hour 2's $67.4 million. It also ranks as the best debut for Mel Gibson, beating Ransom's $34.2 million, and for director M. Night Shyamalan, almost doubling Unbreakable's $30.3 million.
With $82.4 million through Wednesday, Signs has surpassed the $78.1 million total that Gibson's We Were Soldiers captured earlier this year. It should also exceed Unbreakable's $94.9 million total by Friday and cross $100 million by Saturday.
A second weekend haul of between $30 million and $35 million puts Signs on track to make between $185 million and $200 million. Signs would then become Gibson's biggest earner, beating What Women Want's $182.8 million total.
Signs hastened the demise of K-19: The Widowmaker. Harrison Ford's Russian submarine thriller sank a harrowing 61 percent in its third weekend, from $7.2 million to $2.8 million, for a total of $30.7 million through Sunday.
Austin Powers lost some of his mojo in his second weekend, as Goldmember tumbled by 57 percent in its second weekend, which was somewhat steeper than expected after a dazzling $73 million bow. Goldmember's $31.1 million is equal to that of the second weekend of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, which fell only 42.8 percent after a $54.9 million debut.
Not that Mike Myers has to worry that much. With $152.9 million through Wednesday, Goldmember is still well ahead of The Spy Who Shagged Me, which had $128.9 million through its 13th day in release. Even with a 50 percent drop in business, Goldmember will earn $15 million in its third weekend. That puts Goldmember on target to surpass The Spy Who Shagged Me's $206 million total by at least $10 million.
Goldmember's presence continued to haunt Men in Black II, which fell 42 percent in its fifth weekend, from $8.4 million to $4.8 million. With $183.9 million through Wednesday, MIBII is heading for a $200 million total.
Mr. Deeds also lost half its audience in its sixth weekend, falling from $4.2 million to $2.1 million. Adam Sandler's remake of the classic Frank Capra comedy Mr. Deeds Goes to Town has $121.5 million through Tuesday.
Martin Lawrence might have endured two consecutive flops in 2001 with What's the Worst that Could Happen? and Black Knight, but he can still hold urban audiences captive with his standup routine.
The slightly confessional Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat opened at a mere 752 theaters with a strong $7.3 million. With $9.3 million through Wednesday, Runteldat is close to exceeding the $10.1 million generated by Lawrence's first concert film, 1994's You So Crazy.
Runteldat did not enjoy as big an opening as The Original Kings of Comedy, which debuted in 2000 with a surprising $11.6 million at 847 theaters. Spike Lee's concert film ended up with a total $38.1 million. Runteldat doesn't have the legs to make it that far, but it should end up with a total between $20 million and $25 million. That, coupled with the forthcoming National Security and Bad Boys 2, should add some luster to Lawrence's tarnished star.
The art house circuit is home to the year's biggest sleeper, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The romantic comedy added 88 theaters in its 16th week, bringing its total to 657 theaters, and relished a second consecutive weekend take of $3 million. It now has $41.4 million through Wednesday, with $60 million a possible total.
Also, in limited release, Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal was greeted with apathy. Soderbergh's digitally shot comedy, headlined by Julia Roberts, opened with $739,834 at 208 theaters. Seems no one's too thrilled with the prospect of seeing this unofficial sequel to sex, lies, and videotape.
Seems there are plenty of older women eager to pull a Mrs. Robinson this summer. Bebe Neuwirth seduces Aaron Stanford in Tadpole, which has made $721,705 through Sunday after three weekends. Catherine Keener smooches with Jake Gyllenhaal in Lovely & Amazing, which has made $2.4 million through Sunday after six weekends.
Now it's Jennifer Aniston's turn to fool around with Gyllenhaal. The Good Girl opened Wednesday in limited release after it won raves at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Reviewers have already praised Aniston for her performance as a neglected wife willing to bed a younger man.
Aniston's film career has not been too impressive--Picture Perfect ranks as her best effort at $31.3 million. Driven by excellent reviews, The Good Girl could make the jump from the art house circuit to mainstream theaters. If that's the case, Aniston might find it easier to bid farewell to her Friends next year.