Hero Puts Squeeze on Anacondas

China’s top-grossing film is now America’s reigning box-office champ. The Miramax-distributed Jet Li period actioner surpassed expectations, taking in an estimated $17.8 million to edge out Sony ScreenGem’s Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, which slithers into second place with around $13.32 million.

After sitting on a shelf at Miramax for two years, director Zhang Yimou’s Hero emerged to surpass expectations in a country where subtitled foreign fare is usually relegated to art-house obscurity. The feat is especially impressive considering the film was released in nearly 1,000 fewer theaters than its closest competitor. Hero’s opening even outdid director Ang Lee’s Oscar-nominated 2000 hit, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which rolled out more gradually on its way to $128 million in North America. Animal Logic, The Orphanage and Tweak Films contributed effects work to Hero, which has been highly praised by critics for its stunning visuals.

While it didn’t take the top spot as expected, Anacondas did well for a campy B movie with no star power. Giant CG snakes by Australian effects house Photon are the stars of this sequel to the 1997 surprise hit, Anaconda, starring Jennifer Lopez, John Voit and Ice Cube. Anacondas also managed to garner relatively positive reviews from leading publications such as the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, but word-of-mouth from moviegoers will decide whether it sinks or swims over the next couple of weeks.

Paramount’s buddy comedy, Without a Paddle, comes in at No. 3 with an estimated $8.7 million, followed by Buena Vista’s The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement with just north of $8 million. Last week’s chart topper, Warner Bros.’ Exorcist: The Beginning, begins its rapid descent at No. 5 with an estimated $6.7 million and a steep 62.7% drop-off in its second week.