LOS ANGELES (AP) – “The Last Samurai” came in first at the weekend box office as the Tom Cruise war epic cut down the competition with $24.4 million in ticket sales, according to studio estimates Sunday.

In the film, Cruise plays a downtrodden Civil War veteran who reclaims honor by forging a bond with samurai warriors – despite having been brought to Japan to quash their rebellion by training a mercenary army for the Japanese emperor.

Cruise’s other recent films have opened stronger, such as the $35.6 million debut for “Minority Report” and the $57.8 million opening of “Mission: Impossible II.”

“Samurai,” which is nearly two-and-a-half hours long, had a similar opening gross to “Vanilla Sky,” which collected $25 million in its first weekend.

“It’s almost a lock that every time he opens a movie it comes in at No. 1. This guy is box office insurance personified,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. “For an R-rated film, a very long film, a period epic – I think this speaks to Tom Cruise’s drawing power.”

The debut of “Samurai” toppled last week’s No. 1 movie, “Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat,” which fell to fifth place with $7.3 million.

So far, “Cat” has earned a total of $85.5 million, according to Universal Pictures, placing it far behind the studio’s 2000 Jim Carrey comedy “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which had collected about $172 million at the same point in its release. “Grinch” ultimately earned $260 million by the end of its run.

The Jessica Alba aspiring-dancer melodrama “Honey,” the only other new movie opening in wide release, ranked second this weekend with $14 million despite generally poor reviews, some of which compared its story to the infamous Mariah Carey bomb “Glitter.”

It’s a strong opening for the former star of TV’s “Dark Angel,” and distributor Universal Pictures said the audience for “Honey” was about 75 percent under 21 and 74 percent female. That proved to be wise counterprogramming against “Samurai,” which had audiences skewing older and predominantly male, Dergarabedian said.

“Universal selected just the right movie to go up against ‘The Last Samurai,’ the two movies couldn’t be more different,” he said.

In only 126 theaters, a rerelease of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” added $431,000 to that film’s total gross, bringing it to $313.8 million. New Line Cinema is reissuing the previous two films to a handful of theaters in advance of the Dec. 17 debut of the final “Rings” installment: “The Return of the King.” This coming week, “The Two Towers” will be in theaters again.

There’s a moviegoing vacuum that usually follows the weekend after the Thanksgiving holiday, and many of the top holdover movies saw ticket sales drop by more than 60 percent this weekend. Snowfall in the northeastern states may also have kept people at home and away from theaters.

Nonetheless, the overall box-office was up about 34 percent. The top 12 movies took in $91.8 million from Friday to Sunday compared to $68.5 million from the same weekend last year, when “Die Another Day” and “Analyze That” topped the box-office.

AP-ES-12-07-03 1528EST



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