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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The new terrorism thriller "Body of Lies" failed to take the top spot at the weekend box office in North America, an apparent victim of moviegoers' preference for escapist fare amid global financial turmoil.
The Warner Bros. film, starring Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio as CIA agents battling a terrorist organization in the Middle East, had to settle for the No. 3 slot with $13.1 million, according to studio estimates issued on Sunday.
The Walt Disney Co family comedy "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" logged a second weekend at No. 1 with $17.5 million, taking its 10-day haul to $52.5 million.
The low-budget zombie horror "Quarantine" opened at No. 2 with $14.2 million. The $12 million film was released by Screen Gems, a unit of Sony Corp.
Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc, had hoped "Body of Lies" would open at No. 1 with a three-day sum possibly reaching the high-teen millions.
"I'm a bit disappointed," said Dan Fellman, the studio's domestic distribution president. "It was too good for the gross it recorded."
DiCaprio stars as an Arabic-speaking field agent who teams up with Jordanian spies to uncover a dangerous terrorist operation. Crowe plays his boss back in the United States. The movie was directed by British filmmaker Sir Ridley Scott, who previously steered Crowe to an Oscar with "Gladiator."
Fellman said the film's grim subject matter may have deterred moviegoers looking for more uplifting material as world leaders race to head off the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. This explains the strong hold for "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," one of the few comedies in theaters
It did not help that other Iraq war-related movies, such as "Rendition," "Redacted," "Stop-Loss" and "In the Valley of Elah," have also bombed at the box office.
Fellman said the film cost $70 million to make, but rival studios said it might have cost twice as much, given the hefty paydays for DiCaprio, Crowe, and Scott, not to mention the cost of shooting multiple explosions on its Morocco set.
As an aside, "Body of Lies" underperformed the $22 million debut of "Poseidon," the 2006 Warner Bros. bomb that Crowe's character sardonically references in the movie. Crowe recently said that Warner Bros. edited out an extended riff on the maritime disaster.
"Body of Lies" was not the only disappointment. Universal Pictures' football drama "The Express" dropped the ball at No. 6 with $4.7 million. And 20th Century Fox's children's film "City of Ember" opened at No. 10 with $3.2 million. Each cost about $38 million to make, according to their respective studios. Universal is a unit of General Electric Co's NBC Universal; Fox is a unit of News Corp.
Among new limited releases, British director Guy Ritchie's latest gangster movie, "RocknRolla," earned a solid $141,000 from seven theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto. It was also released by Warner Bros.
Reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by Cynthia Osterman