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First look: Gibson's return beats 'When in Rome' but is no match for 'Avatar' (updated)

January 31, 2010 |  9:11 am

EdgeDarkness Mel Gibson may not have the star power he used to, but he cannot be vanquished by a low-budget romantic comedy.

Thriller "Edge of Darkness," which marked the controversial star's return to the big screen after a 7-year absence, sold $17.1 million in tickets in the U.S. and Canada this weekend, according to an estimate from distributor Warner Bros. That's on the high end of expectations based on pre-release surveys and a decent start given that Warner paid $27 million for domestic distribution rights to GK Films, which financed the picture.

Still, there's no doubt that Gibson's star has faded somewhat, accelerated no doubt by his infamous 2006 alcohol-fueled rant against Jews. The debut of "Edge of Darkness" is the lowest for any film starring Gibson since 1995's "Braveheart," despite substantial ticket-price increases over the last 15 years. Of those who attended, the majority were older than 35, and 70% said Gibson was the primary appeal, according to exit polls.

Audiences gave the picture an above-average grade of B+, according to market research firm CinemaScore, meaning word-of-mouth should be good and could easily take the film to more than $40 million, ultimately.

WhenRome Its only new competition, Walt Disney Studios' romantic comedy "When in Rome," starring Kristen Bell and Josh Duhamel, debuted to a less-impressive $12.1 million. The so-so start for the modestly budgeted picture was a bit better than other recent disappointing romantic comedies, such as "Leap Year," which started with just $9.2 million.

"Avatar" continued its winning ways, as ticket sales declined a minuscule 14% to $30 million. Director James Cameron's 3-D box office phenomenon has now grossed an estimated $594.4 million domestically and will in the next few days become the first movie ever to surpass $601 million.

Of the films that opened last week, only 20th Century Fox and Walden Media's family comedy "The Tooth Fairy" held on well, dropping just 29% from its soft opening to $10 million. Sony Pictures' post-apocalyptic thriller "Legion" plummeted 61% from its healthy bow to $6.8 million, while CBS Films' "Extraordinary Measures" fell 57% to a once-again disappointing $2.6 million.

Fox Searchlight more than doubled the theater count of its indie country-music film "Crazy Heart" to 239, taking advantage of the string of awards star Jeff Bridges has won and anticipation of an Academy Award nomination Tuesday. It generated a solid $2.25 million this weekend, bringing its total so far to $6.6 million.

-- Ben Fritz

(Update, 10:50 a.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said "Edge of Darkness" marked Mel Gibson's return to the big screen after a 17-year absence.)

Top photo: Mel Gibson in "Edge of Darkness." Credit: Warner Bros.

Bottom photo: Kristen Bell and Josh Duhamel in "When in Rome." Credit: Myles Aronowitz / Walt Disney Studios