By the Numbers: April 19

Smells like The Rock‘s cookin’ up a hit.

Not that The Scorpion King will ascend the dizzying heights of predecessors The Mummy or The Mummy Returns, but this showcase for The Rock should turn the WWF champ into the next action hero.

The Mummy Returns ($202 million) outpaced The Mummy ($155.3 million) partially on the strength of The Rock‘s fleeting appearance as the Scorpion King. A spin-off seemed such an inevitability that plans were already in the works for The Scorpion King long before The Mummy Returns debuted in May 2001 with a stunning $68.1 million.

The Scorpion King is a serviceable, but never dull, sword-and-sorcery epic a la Conan the Barbarian that features more smackdowns than a season of WWF RAW. The Rock isn’t required to demonstrate much in the way of acting, but he exudes considerable charm in his bloody quest to overthrow a brutal warlord.

Under the direction of Eraser‘s Chuck Russell, The Scorpion King emphasizes violence–and not just of the cartoon variety–over special effects. This will likely prevent The Scorpion King from equaling the popularity of either Mummy offering. The Mummy and its sequel struck gold by turning a dormant horror genre into a kid-friendly thrill ride. Parents not might be too happy with the amount of carnage on display in this PG-13 action yarn.

Still, The Scorpion King opens two weeks before Spider-Man is expected to kick off the summer in grand fashion. Universal Pictures reaped big bucks using a similar strategy for The Mummy series. The Mummy held its own against Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, while The Mummy Returns stood strong when facing Shrek.

Accordingly, expect a big opening for The Scorpion King–more than $25 million–and a strong second weekend at No. 1. The Scorpion King could also serve as the fallback for those unable to buy Spider-Man tickets. It also will squeeze the remaining life out of Wesley Snipes‘ fast-fading Blade 2 ($74.9 million through Wednesday) and make time stand still for Clockstoppers ($28.7 million through Wednesday).

The Scorpion King might not break $100 million, but it should position The Rock as a worthy successor to the muscle-bound Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Thwarting evildoers isn’t just a job for The Rock. Panic Room ($75.3 million through Wednesday) and High Crimes ($26.5 million through Wednesday) continue to prove that women know how to handle themselves in a fight. Now it’s Sandra Bullock‘s turn to lay down the law.

In the surprise comedy hit Miss Congeniality, Bullock paraded around in swimwear as a tough-as-nails cop under cover as a beauty pageant contestant. In Murder by Numbers, she’s a tough-as-nails cop trying to solve the perfect murder.

Audiences prefer Bullock light and sweet, as demonstrated by the strong showings of Miss Congeniality ($106.8 million), While You Were Sleeping ($81 million), Hope Floats ($60.1 million) and Forces of Nature ($52.9 million).

Springing into action has resulted in hits and misses. Speed ($108.7 million) turned Bullock into a star, while The Net rang up $50.6 million. The less said about Keanu Reeves-less Speed 2: Cruise Control ($48.1 million), the better.

Bullock can’t rely on the track record of director Barbet Schroeder, who has not scored a hit since 1992’s Single White Female ($47.9 million). The acclaimed Iranian-born director seems content these days to churn out one mediocre thriller after another, including Kiss of Death ($14.9 million), Desperate Measures ($13.6 million) and Before and After ($8.6 million).

So it is down to Bullock to lure audiences to Murder by Numbers. If Ashley Judd‘s incomprehensible and poorly reviewed High Crimes can open with $14 million, so can Murder By Numbers. But it also will likely lose almost 50 percent of its audiences in its second weekend–as High Crimes endured–as women seek out Angelina Jolie‘s comedy Life or Something Like It.

Murder by Numbers will hasten High Crimes‘ swift descent, and give Jodie Foster‘s potent Panic Room some competition.

The Rock will slap Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson into submission with ease, but that does not mean that Changing Lanes will go down without a fight.

The psychological thriller, pitting sleazy attorney Affleck against outraged Jackson, cruised to No. 1 with $17.1 million. That falls between the openings of Jackson‘s Rules of Engagement ($15 million) and Shaft ($21.7 million). It also represents the biggest opening for an Affleck offering not produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor).

With $20.6 million through Wednesday, Changing Lanes could park itself somewhere at around $50 million. Expect a second weekend gross of between $11 million and $12 million.

Cameron Diaz still needs to prove that she’s worth $15 million. That’s what she reportedly earned for the crass romantic comedy The Sweetest Thing, which debuted with a sour $9.4 million. It’s all the more disappointing considering Diaz‘s important contributions to Shrek ($267.6 million), Charlie’s Angels ($125.3 million) and Vanilla Sky ($100.5 million).

Diaz clearly intended to capitalize on the runaway success of the anything-goes There’s Something About Mary, but The Sweetest Thing couldn’t even match that farce’s $13.7 million opening. The Sweetest Thing didn’t even have much in the way of competition, what with the quick demises of National Lampoon’s Van Wilder ($14.6 million through Wednesday), Death to Smoochy ($8 million through Sunday) and Big Trouble ($5.9 million through Sunday).

With a so-so $11.2 million through Wednesday, The Sweetest Thing will enjoy a $5 million second weekend before losing all its audience to next week’s Life or Something Like It.

Sterling reviews and words of praise from author Stephen King did not translate into dollars for Bill Paxton‘s dark and ambitious Frailty. The thriller, featuring Paxton as a devout father on an unusual mission from God, opened with a lackluster $4.2 million from a modest 1,497 theaters. It has $5.1 million through Wednesday.

Frailty got lost among the likes of Panic Room, High Crimes and Changing Lanes. Lions Gate clearly needed to build momentum for Frailty by way of a platform release built around strong word-of-mouth. That worked last year for New Market’s Memento. Frailty is an unfortunate case of what happens when a film that needs to be handled with care hits too many theaters at once.

The careful approach is working for several other small films with commercial appeal, including Monsoon Wedding ($6.1 million through Sunday), Y Tu Mama Tambien ($4.4 million through Sunday) and Kissing Jessica Stein ($4.2 million).

With $153.2 million through Wednesday, Ice Age looks set to amuse children and adults alike into early summer. The animated yarn could hit $180 million by the time Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron gallops into theaters on May 24.

The Rookie also continues to throw strikeouts. Dennis Quaid‘s biography of Tampa Bay Devil Rays pitcher Jim Morris has $46.8 million through Wednesday.

A Beautiful Mind and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring are close to the end of their runs.

Ron Howard‘s Oscar-winning biography of John Forbes Nash Jr. has $167.1 million through Sunday, with $175 million a likely total.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring will supplant Independence Day ($306.1 million) as the 10th highest grossing film domestically. With $305.8 million through Sunday, Peter Jackson‘s epic also could surpass Return of the Jedi ($309.2 million) and The Lion King ($312.8 million) by the end of its run.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial now ranks No. 3 on the same list. The reissued Steven Spielberg classic has made a total $431.1 million through Sunday, or slightly better than the $430 million earned by Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

That’s about the only good news to come out of the E.T. reissue, which has generated a disappointing $32.9 million through Sunday. Of course, this could be all for naught come May 16, when Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones hits theaters. The Empire strikes back, indeed.