'Lone Survivor' Proves Sleeper Smash at the Box Office

Plus: Stars power 'August: Osage County' to Top 10 finish

Taylor Kitsch, Michael Murphy, Mark Wahlberg, Marcus Luttrell, Ben Foster, Matt 'Axe' Axelson, Emile Hirsch, Danny Dietz, Lone Survivor, box office
Universal Pictures
Taylor Kitsch as Michael Murphy, Mark Wahlberg as Marcus Luttrell, Ben Foster as Matt 'Axe' Axelson and Emile Hirsch as Danny Dietz in 'Lone Survivor'
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WINNERS OF THE WEEK: The Bergs. That'd be director Peter Berg and actor producer Mark Wahlberg. Their Lone Survivor, which opened wide this weekend after two weekends in limited release, proved the first surprise smash of 2014, topping the chart with an estimated $38.5 million. That's better than any three-day January opening except for the $40 million earned by Cloverfield six years ago. Plus, it marks an end to the streak of so-so January openings for Wahlberg (ContrabandBroken City) and reverses Berg's fortunes after the flop Battleship.

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How did the movie do so well, considering that pundits were guessing it would open somewhere between $16 and $27 million? It helped that it was based on a bestselling book (by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, played in the film by Wahlberg), is about a true incident of wartime heroism, earned the best possible word-of-mouth (as measured by an A+ at CinemaScore), appealed to women as well as men, and didn't have much competition among new releases. Speaking of which. . . .

LOSERS OF THE WEEK: Movies with "Her" in the title. That'd be The Legend of Hercules and HerLegend opened in fourth place with an estimated $8.6 million, about the upper end of expectations. Even though it was the only truly new wide release movie of the weekend, it still couldn't beat holdovers Frozen (Number Two, with an estimated $15.1 million) and The Wolf of Wall Street (Number Three, with an estimated $9.0 million). Then again, no one was expecting much from this collaboration of director Renny Harlin (Cutthroat Island) and star Kellan Lutz (The Twilight Saga). For one thing, Lutz hasn't proved he has a male action fanbase, while the teen girls who loved Twilight weren't necessarily going to come out to see Lutz in this kind of role. In fact, in the seven years since 300, there hasn't been much demand for swords-and-sandals movies, though we'll be seeing a lot of them in 2014.

As for Her, Joaquin Phoenix's man-and-machine love story expanded wide this week but underperformed, to the tune of an estimated $5.4 million and an 11th place finish. Pundits had been expecting it to vie with Hercules for a top-five spot and a take of around $8 million, but as with Phoenix's 2012 film The Master, even though film critics adored it, the public seems to have found it strange and disturbing.

'AUGUST' COMPANY: August: Osage County has garnered a lot less critical and awards-season love than Her, but its wide-release expansion this weekend did a lot better. With a take estimated at $7.3 million, it jumped from Number 31 on last week's chart to Number Seven this weekend. Despite middling reviews, August still has the combined star power of Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and an ensemble of other prestigious thespians. The Weinstein Company, which is usually aces at scoring award nominations for its year-end films, will just have to settle for having the movie make a lot of money.