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'Beowulf' takes early lead at box office

LOS ANGELES, Nov 17 (Reuters) - The battlefield extravaganza “Beowulf” laid waste its rivals at the weekend box office in North America, according to first-day sales estimates issued on Saturday.

Director Robert Zemeckis' effects-heavy interpretation of the Old English poem earned $9.7 million on Friday, tracking firm Box Office Mojo ( reported.

The $150 million film, released domestically by Paramount Pictures, is on track for a weekend haul in the upper $20 million range, in line with expectations. The similarly themed “300” opened to $71 million in March.

British actor Ray Winstone stars in the title role as the dashing warrior who battles demons, a dragon and Angelina Jolie around the 6th century A.D. “Beowulf,” a hybrid of animation and live action, is playing in both traditional and 3-D theaters. The film’s foreign distributor, Warner Bros. Pictures, opened it during the weekend in such key markets as Britain, Germany and South Korea.

Meanwhile, the Denzel Washington-Russell Crowe crime saga “American Gangster” held at No. 2 with $3.9 million in its third weekend. Universal Pictures’ former chart-topper has earned $92 million to date, Box Office Mojo said. Last weekend’s champ, DreamWorks Animation’s “Bee Movie,” fell to No. 3 with $3.4 million, also in its third week; its tally stands at $83 million.

The Vince Vaughn comedy “Fred Claus” (Warner Bros.) slipped one place to No. 4 with $3.3 million in its second weekend, for a total of $27 million. The fantasy drama “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” (20th Century Fox), starring Dustin Hoffman as a toy impresario, opened at No. 5 with a modest $2.65 million.

Two literary adaptations, both starring Spanish actor Javier Bardem, entered the top 10. Miramax Films’ “No Country For Old Men,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s version of the thriller by Cormac McCarthy, jumped eight places to No. 7 with $890,000 after boosting its theater count in its second weekend.

New Line Cinema’s “Love in the Time of Cholera,” director Mike Newell’s adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s tale of unrequited love, opened at No. 10 with just $630,000.

Paramount, a unit of Viacom Inc VIAb.N, also distributed "Bee Movie," a DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc DWA.N production.

Universal Pictures is a unit of General Electric Co GE.N. Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema are units of Time Warner Inc TWX.N. 20th Century Fox is a unit of News Corp NWSa.N Miramax Films is a unit of Walt Disney Co. DIS.N (Reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by Eric Walsh)