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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Nicolas Cage unearthed the No. 1 spot at the North American box office on Sunday with "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," which earned more than the combined totals of four other high-powered newcomers.
The action sequel sold $45.5 million worth of tickets during its first three days, distributor Walt Disney Pictures said. Last weekend's champion, the Will Smith sci-fi thriller "I Am Legend," slipped to No. 2 with $34.2 million, taking the 10-day haul for the Warner Bros. release to $137.5 million.
The Twentieth Century Fox kids movie "Alvin and the Chipmunks," was also down one spot, to No. 3 with $29 million, and a 10-day total of $84.7 million.
Universal Pictures' fact-based political comedy "Charlie Wilson's War" opened at No. 4 with $9.6 million, just ahead of DreamWorks Pictures' Johnny Depp musical "Sweeney Todd" at No. 5 with $9.35 million. Both are leading contenders at the Golden Globes next month, with five and four nominations each, respectively.
Also new were Warner Bros' Hilary Swank romance "P.S. I Love You" at No. 6 with a modest $6.5 million, and Columbia Pictures' musical biopic spoof "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" at No. 8 with a disappointing $4.1 million.
The busy slate of new releases helped propel total sales to $163 million, up 36.5 percent over the same weekend last year, according to Media By Numbers, which collects box office data. The studios were bullish about their films, with Christmas Day and New Year's Day essentially giving them elongated weekends.
The $45.5 million start for "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" compares with a $35 million launch for 2004's "National Treasure," which went on to make $173 million, the biggest film of Cage's career. It also earned $173 million overseas. Cage spent two weeks at No. 1 in February with "Ghost Rider," which started with $45 million on its way to $116 million domestically.
In the new film, he flies around the world trying to solve an ancient puzzle related to Lincoln's assassination, in the process managing to break into both Buckingham Palace and the White House. Critics were appalled.
The film also earned $22.3 million from 17 overseas markets, led by No. 1 bows in Japan ($3.6 million) and South Korea ($3.5 million). Disney is waiting until early February to release the film across most of Europe, because it has its hands full with the hit fairy tale romance "Enchanted," which has earned $77.7 million to date overseas.
"Charlie Wilson's War" stars Oscar laureates Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman in a stranger-than-fiction tale of political intrigue involving the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Mike Nichols directed the $75 million movie, and critics were enthusiastic.
Universal said the $9.6 million opening was at the upper end of expectations, in line with that for "The Aviator," another adult-themed Christmas release. Still, "Charlie" averaged just $3,735 per theater, while "National Treasure" did $11,874 and "Sweeney Todd" $7,486.
"Sweeney Todd," which cost about $50 million to make, came in above DreamWorks' $8 million target, the studio said. Depp and director Tim Burton reunited, along with Burton's girlfriend, Helena Bonham Carter, for a critically acclaimed screen version of the bloody musical about a vengeful barber. DreamWorks partnered on the project with Warner Bros.
"P.S. I Love You" stars two-time Oscar winner Swank as a widow who receives letters from her dead husband. Warner Bros. said the opening for the female-targeted film was in line with expectations. It averaged just $2,651 per theater.
"Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" stars John C. Reilly in a spoof of such heavy-handed musical biopics as "Ray" and "Walk the Line." Critics were impressed, but audiences were not. Columbia said it had hoped for an opening closer to $10 million. The film, which averaged just $1,547 per theater, cost about $35 million to make.
Additionally, the teen comedy "Juno" rose one place to No. 10 in its third weekend of limited release with $3.4 million. The Fox Searchlight project, starring Canadian actress Ellen Page, has earned $6.4 million to date.
Walt Disney Pictures is a unit of Walt Disney Co. Warner Bros. Pictures is a unit of Time Warner Inc. Fox and Fox Searchlight are units of News Corp. DreamWorks is a unit of Viacom Inc. Universal Pictures is a unit of General Electric Co's NBC Universal. Columbia Pictures is a unit of Sony Corp.
Editing by Doina Chiacu