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Will Smith revives career with strong ‘Bad Boys’ box office opening

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Two years after his infamous Oscars meltdown, Will Smith has slapped away lingering doubts about his career comeback.

A rare bright spot in the sluggish summer box office, the action-comedy “Bad Boys: Ride or Die” — co-starring Martin Lawrence — opened at the top of the box office charts this weekend with $56 million in domestic ticket sales and $104.6 million globally.

The stronger-than-expected debut for the fourth installment in the long-running buddy-cop franchise marks Smith’s 15th time leading a film to the No. 1 spot at the box office. The achievement is particularly notable as Smith returns to one of his best-known roles in his first major theatrical release since he stormed onto the stage and struck Chris Rock during the 2022 Oscars over a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. (The actor, who went on to win the lead actor prize for his turn in “King Richard,” subsequently resigned from the film academy and apologized for his conduct.)

Given Smith’s track record — with more than $9 billion in lifetime box office earnings globally — industry expectations for “Ride or Die” heading into the weekend were cautiously optimistic.

The star’s last major outing, director Antoine Fuqua’s 2022 period action thriller “Emancipation,” in which Smith played an escaped slave, was largely ignored in its limited theatrical release and failed to earn any awards love, leaving the actor’s future an open question. But with the latest “Bad Boys” film, Smith found himself once again on solid ground, reuniting with Lawrence in a franchise dating back to his mid-1990s box office heyday.

Lawrence, left, and Smith in a scene from “Bad Boys: Ride or Die.”

(Frank Masi)

While “Ride or Die” fell short of the $62.5 million opening of its predecessor, 2020’s “Bad Boys for Life” — which ended up as the biggest box office hit of that pandemic-dampened year — it still delivered a much-needed boost to Hollywood’s summer box office, which has seen a string of releases like “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” and “The Fall Guy” underperform.

Even with the relative success of “Ride or Die,” total domestic box office year-to-date is still running a staggering 26% below last year. As Hollywood continues to struggle to recover from the double-whammy of the pandemic and the strikes, the industry will take the good news anywhere it can find it.

“Ordinarily the gold standard [for a summer blockbuster] is a $100 million opening but in the context of this marketplace, this is a total win both for Will Smith and for the industry writ large,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for the data firm ComScore. “I think it also shows that, despite the fact that many moviegoers decry the lack of originality, this R-rated buddy-cop formula was exactly what audiences were looking for. If you look at the top summer movies, generally speaking they’re those tried-and-true brands and genres and stars.”

Indeed, while “Ride or Die” earned mixed reviews from critics, audiences were more favorable. Moviegoers, more than half of whom were under 35 and roughly 44% of whom were Black, gave the film an A-minus in CinemaScore in exit polls and a 97% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Past controversy notwithstanding, Sony, which released “Ride or Die,” did not shy away from Smith in its marketing, with the star conducting an extensive publicity tour and showing up at the film’s Los Angeles premiere performing his 1997 hit “Miami” atop a double-decker bus.

For audiences, there is a certain Pavlovian response to showing up for a summer movie starring Smith, who has had a disproportionate impact on Hollywood’s most critical season with past blockbusters like “Independence Day,” “Men in Black,” “Hancock” and “I, Robot.” But at age 55, with his popularity dinged by the fallout from his Oscars outburst, it remains to be seen how he might fare outside of that familiar comfort zone.

“They used to call Will Smith ‘Mr. Fourth of July’ — there was a time when you’d look up ‘summer movie season’ in the dictionary and his picture would be there,” says Dergarabedian. “If you plug in Will Smith, Martin Lawrence and ‘Bad Boys,’ you’re going to have a hit — it’s just a fait accompli. The bigger question is, what’s his next movie going to do?”

Sony also claimed the No. 2 spot this weekend, with “The Garfield Movie” pulling in $10 million in its third week of release. To date, the animated film about the lasagna-loving feline has grossed $68.6 million in North America and $192 million globally.

Paramount’s family film “If” claimed the third slot with $8 million in its fourth weekend of release. After a slow start, the film has earned $93.5 million domestically and $160.7 million worldwide.

This weekend’s other major new release, the supernatural horror film “The Watchers,” landed in fourth place with a disappointing $7 million from 3,351 venues. Directed by Ishana Night Shyamalan, the daughter of filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, and starring Dakota Fanning, the film was panned by critics and audiences alike, earning a C- CinemaScore.

Rounding out the top five, Disney and 20th Century’s “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” with $5.4 million in its fourth weekend, has earned $149 million in North America and $359.8 globally but is still lagging behind the three previous installments in the rebooted franchise.

While “Ride or Die” provided a moment of hope for the beleaguered box office — or at least a brief respite from the doom — the next few weeks will determine whether this is the beginning of a sustained recovery or merely a temporary blip in an otherwise dismal summer season. The Pixar sequel “Inside Out 2” hits theaters next week, followed at the end of June by the prequel “A Quiet Place: Day One” and the Kevin Costner-directed western epic “Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter 1.”

“If this movie had underperformed, we’d be really pulling our hair out trying to figure out what’s going on,” says Dergarabedian. “This was a great result but it didn’t move the needle. It took us a while to get here and it’s not going to change overnight. But at least we’re stepping in the right direction.”

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