Salt the propulsive new thriller from Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger Patriot Games) has been dubbed “Bourne with boobs ” but that label isn’t entirely accurate. In the role of Evelyn Salt a CIA staffer hunted by her own agency after a Russian defector fingers her in a plot to murder Russia’s president Angelina Jolie keeps her two most potent weapons holstered hidden under pantsuits and trenchcoats and the various other components of a super-spy wardrobe that proudly emphasizes function over flash.
But flash is one thing Salt never lacks for. Its breathless cat-and-mouse game hits full-throttle almost from the outset when a former KGB officer named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) stumbles into a CIA interrogation room and begins spilling details of a vast conspiracy. Back in the ‘70s hardline elements of the Soviet regime launched an ambitious new front in the Cold War flooding the western world with orphans trained to infiltrate the security complexes of their adopted homelands and wait patiently — decades if necessary — for the order to initiate a series of assassinations intended to trigger a devastating nuclear clash between the superpowers from which the treacherous Reds would emerge triumphant.
The Soviet Union may have long ago collapsed (or did it? Hmmm...) but its army of brainwashed killer orphan spies remains in place and if this crazy Orlov fellow is to be believed they stand poised to reignite the Cold War. It’s a preposterous — even idiotic — scheme but no more so than any of our government’s various harebrained proposals to kill Castro back in the ‘60s. As such the CIA treats it with grave seriousness even the part that that pegs Salt who just happens to be a Russian-born orphan herself as a key player in the conspiracy.
Salt bristles at the accusation but suspecting a set-up she opts to flee rather than face interrogation from her bosses Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A former field agent she’s been confined to a desk job since a clandestine operation in North Korea went south leaving her with a nasty shiner and a rather unremarkable German boyfriend (now her unremarkable German husband). She’s clearly kept up her training during while cubicle-bound however and in a blaze of resourceful thinking and devastating Parkour Fu she fends off a dozen or so agents of questionable competence and takes to the streets where she sets about to clear her name and unravel the Commie orphan conspiracy before the authorities can catch up with her. That is if she isn’t a part of the conspiracy.
The premise which aims to resurrect Cold War tensions and graft them onto a modern-day spy thriller is absurdly clever — and cleverly absurd. But Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay isn’t satisfied with the merely clever and absurd — it must be mind-blowing. Salt is one of those thrillers that ladles out its backstory slowly and in tiny portions every once in a while dropping a revelatory bombshell that effectively blows the lid off everything that happened beforehand. No one is who they seem and every action every gesture no matter how seemingly trivial is imbued with some kind of grand significance. The effect of piling on one insane twist after another has the effect of gradually diluting the narrative. When anything is possible nothing really matters.
But spy thrillers by definition trade in the preposterous and the principal function of the summer blockbuster is to entertain. In that regard Salt more than fulfills its charge. Noyce wisely keeps the story moving at pace that allows little time for asking uncomfortable questions or poking holes in the film’s frail plot. And he has an able partner in the infinitely versatile Jolie who having already exhibited formidable action-hero chops in Wanted and the Tomb Raider films proves remarkably adept at the spy game as well.
It’s well-known that Jolie wasn’t the first choice to star in Salt joining the project only after Tom Cruise dropped out citing the story’s growing similarities to the Mission: Impossible films. But she’s more than just a capable replacement; she’s a welcome upgrade over Cruise not least because she’s over a decade younger (and a few inches taller) than her predecessor. Should Brad Bird require a pinch-hitter for Ethan Hunt he knows where to look.
The God of Legion secular Hollywood’s latest Biblically-inspired action flick is old-school an angry spiteful Almighty with a penchant for Old Testament theatrics. Fed up with humanity’s decadent warmongering ways He’s decided to pull the plug on the whole crazy experiment and start over from scratch.
Fortunately for us the God of Legion is also a rather lazy fellow. Instead of doing the apocalyptic work himself and wiping us out with a giant flood which worked perfectly well last time He opts to delegate the task to His army of angels — a questionable strategy that starts to fall apart when the archangel charged with leading the planned extermination Michael (Paul Bettany) refuses to comply.
Michael who unlike his boss still harbors affection for our sorry species abandons his post and descends to earth where inside the swollen belly of Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) an unwed mother-to-be working as a waitress in an out-of-the-way diner sits humanity’s lone hope for survival. Why is this particular baby so important? Is it the one destined to lead us to victory over Skynet? Heaven knows — Legion reveals little details its script devoid of actual scripture. What is clear is that God’s celestial hitmen want the kid whacked before it’s born.
But Michael won’t let humanity fall without a fight. Armed with a Waco-sized arsenal of assault weapons he hunkers down with the diner’s patrons a largely superfluous collection of thinly-sketched caricatures from various demographic groups led by Dennis Quaid as the diner’s grizzled owner Tyrese Gibson as a hip-hop hustler and Lucas Black as a simple-minded country boy.
Together they mount a heroic final stand against hordes of angels who’ve taken possession of “weak-willed” humans turning kindly old grandmas and mild-mannered ice cream vendors into snarling ravenous foul-mouthed beasts. They descend upon the ramshackle diner in a series of full-frontal assaults commanded by the archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) the George Pickett of End of Days generals.
Beneath its superficial religious facade Legion is really just a run-of-the-mill zombie flick a Biblical I Am Legend. Bettany an actor accustomed to smaller dramatic roles in films like A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code looks perfectly at ease in his first major action role wielding machine guns and bowie knives with equal aplomb. Conversely first-time director Scott Stewart a former visual effects artist does little to prove himself worthy of such a promotion serving up some impressive CGI work but not much else worthy of note.
SUNDAY 9:00 p.m. (Pacific): Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will likely be the all-time No. 2 Memorial Day opening and the all-time No. 5 five-day opening in movie history by Monday night. Crystal Skull dipped an estimated 12 percent from Saturday's robust $37M for a very solid $32.56M Sunday for a traditional three-day of $101M. I am projecting a 21 percent drop on Memorial Day for a probable $21.72M. That will push the first Indiana Jones movie in 19 years to $126.28M for the long weekend. As Memorial Day openings go, Harrison Ford and his fedora trail only Johnny Depp and his three-cornered captain's hat.
ALL-TIME TOP FIVE MEMORIAL DAY OPENINGS
1. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End: $139.8M opening
2. Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: $125.6M opening
3. The Lost World: Jurassic Park: $90.1M opening
4. The Day After Tomorrow: $85.8M opening
5. Bruce Almighty: $85.7M opening
Although Crystal Skull has failed to challenge George Lucas' Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith for best five-day opening ever, its projected $151.32M is still impressive in historical terms.
Amazingly, Crystal Skull is the first $100M three-day opening for Steven Spielberg in his career as a director. Crystal Skull will pass $150M in five days, the fastest any movie on Spielberg's remarkable resume has reached that benchmark. It took 11 days for War of the Worlds, 14 days for The Lost World and 16 days for the original Jurassic Park to get there.
The second weekend in release for The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Disney) is a major disappointment. The family film has failed to get any real traction in the marketplace and, after a $7.49M Sunday, it will likely wrap up the long holiday weekend with a four-day of $28.82M. Its 11-day cume is just $96.86M compared to the $117.82M posted by The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe had posted at the same point in its release. That's down 18 percent for Prince Caspian, which has a reported budget of $200M. This is the second of a proposed seven-film Narnia franchise with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader already in production. Phillip Anschutz, the reclusive Christian billionaire behind Walden Media, must be getting a little uneasy.
Marvel's self-produced, self-financed Iron Man is showing no signs of slowing down. The Jon Favreau-directed superhero film added another $6.84M on Sunday, and it will soar to a $25.08M four-day. By Monday night, Iron Man (Paramount) will have a new domestic cume of $257.25M or so. It is the all-time No. 4 grossing live action superhero film, trailing only the three Spider-Man movies.
With two of the top three grossing films over the long holiday, Paramount will have accounted for 72 percent of the $208.87M total box office scored by the top 10. Last year, Paramount reached $1 billion in domestic box office on or about July 9, which was the fastest that any studio has reached the mark. This year the distributor could reach the $1 billion mark by June 15, the end of Kung Fu Panda's second weekend.
REVISED FOUR-DAY ESTIMATES
1. NEW! Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Paramount): $126.28M; $29,587 per theater average (PTA); $151.1M cume
2. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Disney): $28.6M; $7,290 PTA; $96.6M cume
3. Iron Man (Paramount): $25.08M; $6,408 PTA; $257.25M
4. What Happens in Vegas (Fox): $11.1M; $3,430 PTA; $56.3M cume
5. Speed Racer (Warner Bros): $5.2M; $1,617 PTA; $37.4M cume
6. Baby Mama (Universal): $4.208M; $1,896 PTA; $53M cume
7. Made of Honor (Sony): $4.200M; $1,768 PTA; $39.8M cume
8. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Universal): $2.1M; $2,130 PTA; $58.7M cume
9. Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (Warner Bros): $1.22M; $1,637 PTA; $36.22M cume
10. The Visitor (Overture): $917,000; $3,316 PTA; $4.5M cume
WEDNESDAY NIGHT: There is no mystery about which film will win the weekend. It is more a question of how high the new Narnia saga Prince Caspian can fly.
On Sunday, I was very comfortable forecasting $60M-$70M based on industry tracking. The original franchise-starter, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, reached $65.5M on its opening weekend back in December 2005, and the film has gained popularity in the home-video market. The Christian themes in C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles make this the ultimate family-friendly movie, clearly supported by an aggressive faith-based marketing campaign in America’s churches.
The latest industry tracking for Prince Caspian, distributed by Disney, still trails the performance of last summer’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, so it seems unlikely that the new Narnia will top HP5’s $77.1M opening last July. One studio exec pointed out to me a bit of a ‘wild card’ in the tracking. Prince Caspian is likely to perform very well at inner-city locations. Definite Interest is at 50% with African American moviegoers compared to the pre-opening 35% Harry Potter had.
Reviews are coming in very positive for Walden Media’s new Narnia sequel, with an 85% Fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes as of Wednesday night, and the franchise’s core fans will definitely be satisfied. With Iron Man dipping to a sub-$30M weekend and Speed Racer (Warner Bros) mostly a non-factor, Prince Caspian is in a nice spot. I am calling for a $74M-$77M opening weekend and $250M+ domestic, and the odds increase dramatically that Walden Media, funded by Christian billionaire Phillip Anschutz, will begin thinking about 5 more Narnia films, culminating with The Last Battle, possibly in the Summer of 2018.
FINAL BOX OFFICE PREDICTIONS FOR FRIDAY THRU SUNDAY
1. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Disney) - $75M
2. Iron Man (Paramount) - $28M
3. What Happens in Vegas (Fox) - $11.2M
4. Speed Racer (Warner Bros) - $10M
5. Baby Mama (Universal) - $4.9M
6. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Universal) - $2.4M
7. Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo (Warner Bros) - $1.6M
8. The Forbidden Kingdom (Lionsgate) - $1.2M
9. Nim's Island (Fox) - $900,000
10. Redbelt (Sony Classics) - $650,000
Like father, like son?
Tom Hanks paid his dues toiling in such lowbrow fare as Bachelor Party, The Man With One Red Shoe and Volunteers before morphing into the James Stewart of our age.
Colin Hanks seems intent on following the same path that his father took in the 1980s. His film resume includes supporting turns in two ignored high school-set comedies, the painstakingly mediocre Whatever It Takes and the surprisingly charming Get Over It.
For his first starring role, Hanks stars in yet another teen angst-ridden farce, Orange County. Ironically, at the helm of this messy MTV production is another Hollywood hopeful trying to escape the shadow of a famous father, Jake Kasdan. The son of director Lawrence Kasdan, of The Big Chill and Silverado fame, Jake Kasdan's previous directorial effort was the little-seen black comedy Zero Effect with Ben Stiller and Bill Pullman.
Hanks spends much of his time in Orange County tearing out his hair as a high school grad who throws down his surfboard to pursue his newfound dream of becoming a writer. All seems lost when Hanks fails to get into Stanford University, where he wants to study under an author whose writing inspires him to pick up pen and paper.
MTV continues to blitz its audience with promos for Orange County, but it's unlikely that the film's few genuinely funny scenes will be enough to help MTV score another hit on the scale of last January's extremely earnest Save the Last Dance ($91 million). Nor does it help that the likes of John Lithgow, Chevy Chase, Lily Tomlin, Catherine O'Hara and Garry Marshall are shamelessly squandered.
Hanks, whose stock rose after appearing in HBO's critically acclaimed miniseries Band of Brothers, is not the reason why Orange County should enjoy a modest opening of at least $10 million. The film's not-so secret weapon is Jack Black, whose Shallow Hal recently earned $68.8 million. Orange County will prove an interesting test of Black's newfound popularity. The ads place much prominence on Black, but he does not emerge as much of a comic presence until midway through Orange County, when Hanks and brother Black hit the road and head to Stanford University.
This week's sole new wide release, Orange County won't pose much of a threat to reigning champion The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. With $211.3 million through Wednesday, director Peter Jackson's fantasy epic is likely surpass Rush Hour 2's $226.1 million this weekend, to become New Line's biggest grossing film domestically. That alone justifies New Line giving Jackson $270 million and two years to film J.R.R. Tolkien's literary trilogy. This first chapter looks set to equal New Line's expenditure by its lonesome, and should cross $300 million with the assistance of a few Golden Globe wins and its likely Oscar nods.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring also will likely enjoy its last week at the top of the box office. Black Hawk Down, director Ridley Scott's bloody account of the U.S. soldiers under fire in Somalia in 1993, will go wide Jan. 18 after earning $558,812 in two weekends at a mere four theaters in New York and Los Angeles.
A Beautiful Mind hardly went to waste as the Russell Crowe drama capitalized on great reviews and a terrific $18.6 million in limited release during the holidays. The Ron Howard-directed biography of mentally ill mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. earned $16.5 million last weekend after expanding from 525 theaters to 1,853 theaters, and has $41.8 million through Wednesday. With little competition this weekend, A Beautiful Mind should reap another $13 million, laying down the foundations for a long and healthy run through the end of the Oscar season.
The same goes for The Royal Tenenbaums. Director Wes Anderson's dysfunctional family comedy expanded last weekend from 291 theaters to 751 theaters, with earnings jumping from $4.9 million to $8.5 million. Anderson should relish The Royal Tenenbaums's $22.9 million total through Wednesday, considering his last film, Rushmore, stalled at $17 million in 1998 despite excellent reviews.
Ali, though, looks less and less like an Oscar heavyweight with each passing day. The Muhammad Ali biography is proving no match for rivals A Beautiful Mind and The Royal Tenenbaums following its record $10.2 million Christmas Day opening. Its total through Wednesday is $50.8 million, with only the prospect of a potential Oscar nomination for Will Smith and the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend rush likely to push Ali to more than $70 million.
The first wide release of 2002 also ranks as the year's first flop. The oft-delayed Impostor, a sci-fi thriller based on a Phillip K. Dick novel, failed to crack the top 10 last weekend after taking a weak $3 million at 1,616 theaters.
Impostor's failure does not come as a surprise. Dimension originally scheduled the alien terrorist-themed Impostor for August 2000 before putting it on the shelf for almost 18 months. Still, Impostor's fate should seem all the more hurtful for director Gary Fleder, who expanded Impostor from a 30-minute segment of The Light Years Trilogy into a full-length feature at Dimension's request.
A handful of holiday holdovers continue to capture the nation's attention.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone--now Warner Bros. biggest grosser in the United State--became the first film since 1999's Star Wars: Episode 1-The Phantom Menace to make more than $300 million domestically. Harry Potter, with $301.3 million through Wednesday, now ranks as the 10th top-grossing film in the United States.
The apprentice wizard still has enough magic at his disposal to fly past The Lion King ($312.9 million), Return of the Jedi ($309.1 million) and Independence Day ($306.2 million) to capture the No. 7 spot. This should please director Chris Columbus, who recently saw Harry Potter supplant Home Alone ($285.8 million) as his top grosser.
Las Vegas remains under the control of Ocean's Eleven. The star-studded crime caper has $153.5 million through Tuesday. This could mark the first film from star George Clooney and director Steven Soderbergh to steal off with $200 million.
The jump from Nickelodeon to movie theaters paid off for Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. The animated adventure soared past $63 million on Tuesday, with the smart pre-teen destined to make more than the last Nickelodeon spin-off, 2000's Rugrats in Paris ($76.5 million).
Despite its critical drubbing, Vanilla Sky resists falling too hard, too fast. Tom Cruise's star power can only explain why this bewildering remake of Open Your Eyes has $82.9 million through Wednesday. Still, after last weekend's modest $7.1 million haul, Vanilla Sky might not have the pull to become Cruise's ninth film to make more than $100 million.
Kate & Leopold looks set this weekend to become Meg Ryan's biggest hit since You've Got Mail posted $115.8 million in 1998. Not that this is much to crow about. The hackneyed time-traveling romance, co-starring Hugh Jackman, has a lowly $32 million through Wednesday. Ryan's 2000 releases, Hanging Up ($36 million) and Proof of Life ($32.5 million), did not do much to enhance her stature at the box office. Still, Kate & Leopold could woo at least $45 million from undemanding couples.
A handful of films in limited release are keeping art-houses busy.
A thinking man's Death Wish, In the Bedroom has amassed $4.2 million. Robert Altman's murder mystery Gosford Park, featuring the likes of Maggie Smith and Emily Watson, has $2.1 million. Gosford Park will expand to 500 theaters after earning a promising $1.2 million last weekend in 131 theaters.
Miramax tentatively tests the water this weekend as it expands Lasse Hallstrom's The Shipping News from 213 to 300 theaters. Miramax used the same platform release strategy with Hallstrom's previous Oscar-nominated literary adaptations The Cider House Rules and Chocolat, but audiences have yet to embrace The Shipping News with the same enthusiasm. So far, The Shipping News has earned a so-so $4.2 million.
The Cider House Rules and Chocolat earned a combined 12 Oscar nominations, with The Cider House Rules notching two wins, for Miramax. But Miramax is better off throwing its marketing muscle behind In the Bedroom and Amelie ($17.6 million) in this year's Oscar race.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Annie Proulx, the dreary The Shipping News seems as cold and uninviting as the Newfoundland town that cuckolded sad-sack Kevin Spacey flees to with his daughter and aunt (Judi Dench). Nothing much seems to happen for a tale that unbelievably throws fatal car wrecks, bodies lost at sea, pirates and incest together in one heaping of small-town hooey.
So don't expect The Shipping News to do for seal-flipper pie as Sleepless in Seattle did for tiramisu.