Mel Gibson's bloody epic Apocalypto debuted as the No. 1 at North American box offices over the weekend, proving the filmmaker can still deliver a winner despite his drunken-driving arrest and anti-Semitic rant last summer.
Apocalypto, a Disney release set in the Mayan civilization and told in an obscure Mayan language, opened with $14.2 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.
It was a modest haul compared to the $83.8 million opening weekend of Gibson's last movie, the 2004 religious blockbuster The Passion of the Christ, which went on to do $370 million domestically.
But Apocalypto overcame the baggage of Gibson's personal troubles as well as its difficult subject matter, which features a no-name cast in a hyper-violent tale that includes beheadings and images of hearts ripped from people's chests.
"The movie obviously succeeds on its own level. I think people probably are a bit on the surprised side around [Hollywood] that it's No. 1," said Chuck Viane, head of distribution for Disney. "Two months ago, nobody would have bet on that."
Disney reported that Gibson's Apocalypto drew solid crowds across-the-board, with movie-goers equally split between men and women and the core of the audience ranging from 18 to 45.
The publicity over Gibson's problems and his contriteness since last summer may have stoked interested in Apocalypto, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers.
"Whenever I tell people I saw the movie, they'd be like, 'You saw it? How was it?' There was a huge curiosity factor," Dergarabedian said. "A movie about Mayan civilization was never destined to be a big hit, let alone a No. 1 movie. But through Disney's marketing, which highlights Mel Gibson - I believe they associated him very closely with the movie - I think that strategy paid off."
Apocalypto is scheduled to be released in Israel in early 2007.