LOS ANGELES (AP) _ ``Hero,'' Jet Li's acclaimed martial-arts epic, vanquished giant snakes, serial killers and a gang of superbabies to debut as the top weekend film with $17.8 million.
``Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid,'' a sequel to 1997's monster-serpent flick, opened in second place with $13.2 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.
The weekend's other new movies debuted weakly. The serial-killer tale ``Suspect Zero,'' starring Aaron Eckhart, Ben Kingsley and Carrie-Anne Moss, came in at No. 10 with $3.4 million.
``Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2,'' a follow-up to the 1999 kid flick, finished at No. 11 with $3.3 million.
The previous weekend's No. 1 movie, ``Exorcist: The Beginning,'' tumbled to fifth-place with $6.7 million, a steep 63 percent drop from its $18.1 million debut.
Overall, the top 12 movies grossed $84.7 million, virtually unchanged over the same weekend a year ago.
With Hollywood's summer season wrapping up over Labor Day weekend, the industry will finish slightly ahead of summer 2003's revenue record of $3.9 billion. But factoring in higher admission prices, the number of tickets sold will lag a bit behind last summer's.
``Hero,'' nominated for the foreign-language Academy Award for 2002, is director Zhang Yimou's saga of China some 2,000 years ago. The film stars Li, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, Chen Dao Ming, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Donnie Yen, a lineup of Asian superstars that distributor Miramax calls the ```Ocean's Eleven' of Chinese films.''
``It obviously hit a nerve and certainly bodes well for Chinese films and foreign-language films,'' said Rick Sands, chief operating officer at Miramax, which opened ``Hero'' in 2,031 theaters, unusually wide for a foreign-language movie. ``We believed in the movie and went for it.''
Presented in Mandarin with English subtitles, ``Hero'' twists through several retellings of an assassination plot against the ruthless leader of Qin, who seeks to subjugate China's other six kingdoms and became the land's first emperor. The stories, character motivations and even color schemes change with each retelling as the film weaves toward the ultimate truth of events.
Critics raved over the cinematography, romance, lush imagery and glorious fight sequences, whose balletic grace rivals that of ``Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,'' the 2000 martial-arts hit.
``We talk about the dog days of August, but maybe these are the days of opportunity for certain types of films to do well after the blockbuster onslaught of early summer,'' said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. ``This is a time when competition is a lot less fierce, and a movie like 'Hero' can take advantage of that.''
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at North American theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. ``Hero,'' $17.8 million.
2. ``Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid,'' $13.2 million.
3. ``Without a Paddle,'' $8.7 million.
4. ``Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement,'' $8.1 million.
5. ``Exorcist: The Beginning,'' $6.7 million.
6. ``Collateral,'' $6.3 million.
7. ``Open Water,'' $5 million.
8. ``Alien vs. Predator,'' $4.8 million.
9. ``The Bourne Supremacy,'' $4.6 million.
10. ``Suspect Zero,'' $3.4 million.