Maybe George Lucas should have made sure 20th Century Fox released “Red Tails” last weekend. Not only would its true story of an early civil rights victory have suited the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, but as an action film, it wouldn’t have been facing off against three similar movies, as it did this weekend. As a result, Lucas’ 23-years-in-the-making World War II epic had to settle for second place and second fiddle to a two-pistol-wielding vampire in a leather corset. Surprising no one, “Underworld Awakening” debuted atop the box office and sucked up an estimated $ 25.4 million in sales.

The “Underworld” finish was about what pundits had predicted, given that it had the widest opening of this weekend’s movies, including many 3D screens, and that all three previous ‘Underworld’ movies had opened at $ 20 million or better. The last one was three years ago, and it had the weakest opening, at $ 20.8 million, but that was also the only one without Kate Beckinsale, who returns in “Awakening.” As a proven franchise, it’s no wonder that “Awakening” topped this weekend’s other two new action movies, which lacked brand familiarity or well-loved lead actors.

In fact, the biggest name in “Red Tails” was its executive producer. There’s been a lot of talk lately, including from George Lucas himself, that no Hollywood studio wanted to finance a big-budget action movie with an all-black cast, not even with the participation of the “Star Wars” guru or the real-life heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen as draws. The excuse cited by the studios was that the movie still wouldn’t have much of a box office appeal, especially overseas. Judging by the film’s second-place premiere this weekend, the studio bean counters may have been right. The movie’s estimated $ 19.1 million is a respectable take for an action movie that’s not driven by a familiar premise or star power. Indeed, few pundits predicted it would do better than $ 15 million. But the movie cost $ 58 million to make (and probably tens of millions more to market), so there’s not much chance of it breaking even at the domestic box office. The movie did have a promising per-screen average of $ 7,604, better than any movie currently in wide release, which suggests a strong want-to-see factor, but with half a dozen other action thrillers coming out in the next couple weeks (including the re-release in 3D of Lucas’ own “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace”), “Red Tails” could easily get lost in the shuffle.

Last week’s winner, “Contraband,” lost 50 percent of its business and slipped to third place, smuggling away another estimated $ 12.2 million. That’s a typical drop for action movie with middling word-of-mouth. Its two-weekend total comes to $ 46.1 million.

Expanding wide (from six theaters to 2,630), drama “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” came in fourth, with an estimated $ 10.5 million. That’s a bit below expectations, which were in the $ 12-$ 13 million range, but still pretty good for a grim tale with such a heavy subject (a boy who loses his father in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center). Right now, it’s one of the few Oscar hopefuls playing on so many screens, which makes it one of the few options for grown-up moviegoers. Given the movie’s polarizing word-of-mouth, it’ll be interesting to see how it holds up as other limited-release Oscar hopefuls expand into more theaters.

Opening at No. 5 was “Haywire,” which did well to earn an estimated $ 9.0 million, considering the competition. Like “Red Tails,” it’s an action movie without a familiar story or a proven star. Gina Carano may be a star in the world of mixed martial arts, but the movie newbie should have expected to get her butt kicked at the box office by a better-known badass babe like Beckinsale. The movie, directed by critical fave Steven Soderbergh, earned strong reviews and it cost just $ 23 million to make, so it could still break even over the coming weeks, if it doesn’t get lost amid the wave of forthcoming action films. Of course, its D+ grade on CinemaScore could hurt its word-of-mouth in coming weeks.

Opening in limited release, “Coriolanus” did reasonably well, earning an estimated $ 60,000 on nine screens. Director/star Ralph Fiennes has updated Shakespeare’s drama about a Roman general to a modern setting, so that the combat scenes look like something from ‘The Hurt Locker,’ so when it expands, it could find itself competing against both fellow Oscar hopefuls and shoot-‘em-ups.

For the third straight weekend, box office is up over the same period a year ago. 2012 is still new, but it’s already seen box office earnings estimated at $ 644.6 million, up 10.6 percent ($ 61.6 million) over the same period in 2011.

“Underworld Awakening” – Trailer No. 2

The full top 10:
1. “Underworld Awakening,” $ 25.4 million (3.078 screens), new release
2. “Red Tails,” $ 19.1 million (2,512), new release
3. “Contraband,” $ 12.2 million (2,870), $ 46.1 million total
4. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” $ 10.5 million (2,630), $ 11.2 million
5. “Haywire,” $ 9.0 million (2,439), new release
6. “Beauty and the Beast,” $ 8.6 million (2,625), $ 33.4 million
7. “Joyful Noise,” $ 6.1 million (2,735), $ 21.9 million
8. “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” $ 5.5 million (2,519), $ 197.3 million
9. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” $ 4.8 million (2,485), $ 178.6 million
10. “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” $ 3.8 million (1,907), $ 94.8 million


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