Presidents' Day Brings the Known Unknown
By John Hamann
February 20, 2011
This is just what we need to solve the box office blues – a nice long weekend in the middle of February. I've got the box office blues because last weekend left us with a battle for top spot between Justin Bieber and Adam Sandler, and despite solid results, those names never equal victory. This weekend, Liam Neeson and Steven Spielberg are big names in the top ten, but so are Martin Lawrence and something called Alex Pettyfer. Thus, there is some good, some bad, and more than a little indifference. Openers this weekend include I Am Number Four, the new DreamWorks film (they're ba-ack), Unknown, a Taken hopeful, and Big Mommas House 3, something I just don't want to know about.
It was a close race to number one over the Presidents' Day Weekend, as two openers did worse than expected, and the other over-performed. Our (surprise) number one film of the weekend is Unknown, and if you're feeling a little "Taken" by this result, you are not the only one. Once again, Liam Neeson has a film busting out in February, as Unknown pulled in $21.8 million from 3,043 venues over the Friday-to-Sunday portion of the long weekend. It earned a venue average of $7,154. Neeson's last breakout success in February was Taken, the revenge thriller that opened to $24.7 million on January 30, 2009. While not a huge opener, Taken dropped only 17% in its second weekend, and dropped only 8% in weekend three. It went on to earn a goofy $145 million domestically (or almost six times its opening), and $225 million worldwide. Unknown, much like Taken, wasn't a very expensive film to make. Taken cost Fox $25 million to make; Unknown cost Warner Bros. $30 million – a number it won't be far from attaining following end of business on Monday.
What made Unknown work so well? The answer is simple enough – it was packaged and released to look like a Taken clone, down to the movie poster. Reviews were also very similar, with critics saying that Neeson is the best thing about both outings. 116 reviewers saw Unknown, and 65 gave it a thumbs up – giving the flick a 56% fresh rating. Taken wasn't much different – it was 57% fresh – and both films may have found that critical sweet spot between extremely well made and very accessible. This is surprising, as Unknown is from director Jaume Collet-Serra, who did the funny Orphan and the laughable House of Wax.
Liam Neeson has made some interesting choices throughout his career, and rightly or wrongly, his name brings credibility to films. In the '80s and '90s, Neeson appeared in some interesting films, like John Boorman's Excalibur and The Mission with Robert DeNiro. He was great in Sam Raimi's Darkman and Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives. Then Spielberg landed him for the role of Oskar Schindler, which made Neeson an international superstar, as Schindler's List made $321 million worldwide in 1993. The rest of the '90s were fairly quiet for Neeson, before stepping into Star Wars: The Phantom Penance, and we all know that George Lucas killed off the best characters in the first film, abandoning any hope for the franchise. Following that, Neeson appeared in some great films like Gangs of New York and Love Actually before taking on the villainous role in Batman Begins and the voice of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia series. Neeson has done a great job of staying in the limelight, making solid choices throughout his career. It looks like Unknown could be another of those great choices.