As observers of both Hollywood and United States national security have noted, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has been enjoying a pretty incredible last few days. He apparently learned about Osama bin Laden's death hours before the rest of us and hinted about the news on Twitter ("Just got word that will shock the world," he wrote). Monday is his 39th birthday. Oh, and his new action flick, "Fast Five," opened to $83.6 million in ticket sales — not only the biggest debut of the year but Universal's largest opening since "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" in 1997.
As remarkable as Johnson's national security sources are, perhaps even more impressive is how well "Fast Five" performed at the box office a decade after "The Fast and the Furious" first hit the multiplex. Franchises tend to max out their public good will after two or three installments, but with this new picture, there can be little doubt that the "Fast and Furious" series has joined the likes of "Die Hard" in the pop-culture establishment. Much of the credit goes to Vin Diesel, industry insiders point out.
"Like Sly Stallone as Rambo, Bruce Willis as John McClane and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, Diesel embodies the role of Dom Toretto, fusing his public persona with his fictional character, and in doing so making him an action icon," said Jeff Bock, box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. "Simply put, in the pantheon of action studs, Diesel is now immortalized as Dom."
But even one iconic character can't fully explain such a mega-debut. After all, the latest "Rambo" opened to just $18.2 million in 2008, while "Live Free or Die Hard" grossed $33.4 million in 2007. Universal reinvigorated the "Fast and Furious" franchise in 2009 by bringing back not only Diesel but Paul Walker, leading to a $71 million opening (then an April record). "Fast Five," in turn, became something of a franchise all-star flick, not only with those two guys but with faces from previous installments, like Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris, plus the introduction of an action stalwart like the Rock.
What's more, box-office experts also noted a wide-open market place for a high-energy blockbuster in a year thus far largely devoid of them. "2011 got off to a very slow start, and that caused a lot of 'people aren't going to the movies anymore' talk," said Phil Contrino, editor of BoxOffice.com. "That's nonsense. Moviegoers were just hungry for reliable entertainment, and that's exactly what they got with 'Fast Five.' A movie like this needs to be seen in theaters. It doesn't deliver the same rush in your living room."
The result, Gitesh Pandya of Box Office Guru pointed out, was a PG-13 film that averaged $22,950 in 3,644 theaters, "including a record 243 IMAX sites where tickets cost as much as $19 each." That translated to an impressive 54 percent market share over the weekend.
Next weekend, the summer movie season officially kicks off with the debut of "Thor." The question for that superhero flick is how its debut will be affected by "Fast Five." Contrino notes that even though "Fast Five" will inevitably see a steep drop-off in ticket sales, "it'll still eat into a portion of 'Thor' 's business."
Or, as Bock put it, " 'Fast Five' already stole 'Thor' 's thunder." He added, "It's going to have a very difficult time matching the debut of 'Fast Five.' Dom has already dropped the hammer on the summer box office."
Check out everything we've got on "Fast Five."
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