EXTRA: Why Wasn’t Mel Swell?

Is the “Lethal Weapon” guy not so lethal anymore?

Or, are American moviegoers (shame on us!) more interested in big disasters and special effects than in Hollywood’s rendition of the Revolutionary War?

These questions and others loom large in the wake of the Fourth of July box office returns, which saw the holiday weekend’s big favorite, “The Patriot,” washed away by “The Perfect Storm,” the film that most observers thought would finish at No. 2.

How, for example, could Mel Gibson‘s stars-and-stripes action flick, tailor-made for an Independence Day release, make about half as much money as a film about foolhardy fishermen who sail right into the eye of a gigantic hurricane? (In case you hadn’t heard, “The Perfect Storm” reaped $62.7 million over the five-day weekend, while “The Patriot” made $35.2 mil.)

How could that big marketing campaign, which saw Mel Gibson‘s rough-hewn face plastered onto every bus stop and billboard across the nation, not pack ’em in?

And how could a movie wherein a guy gets his head blown off by a cannon not blast away the competition, period?

“It’s a bit more of a history book kind of thing, it’s set in a period, and it has an R rating, so that may be a bit forbidding to the younger people,” offers Jeff Blake, Columbia Pictures president of worldwide distribution, by way of explanation. (Columbia is the studio behind “The Patriot.”)

“The contents of [“The Patriot“], at the end of the day, are a great selling point, particularly for adults who don’t necessarily rush out to see a film the first weekend. I think our exit polls are excellent, so in the long run we do believe this film will be very successful. Nothing’s coming up over the next few weeks to compete with it.”

So, if we’re understanding this correctly, “The Patriot” (cannonball money shot and all) is a movie for grown-ups, while “The Perfect Storm” is a flick for the whole family. But does that really explain the $25 million gulf between them?

On the surface, the two movies have much in common.

Both star a grizzled 40-ish macho hero with a 20-something macho sidekick (Gibson’s Heath Ledger to George Clooney‘s Mark Wahlberg). Both movies find the hero fighting the good fight against insurmountable odds (Gibson takes on the Redcoats to avenge his family’s slaughter; Clooney takes on mammoth waves to get his fish to market before they spoil).

The bottom line, however, might be that one is about the Revolutionary War and one is not.

“There’s this curse of the Revolutionary War film. There’s never been one that ignited the box office,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co. “But it’s not over for ‘The Patriot.’ It should have legs, if it gets the word of mouth. It’s a marathoner, it’s not a sprinter.”