Disney's "The Game Plan," starring Johnson as a football quarterback whose bachelor lifestyle is disrupted by the arrival of a daughter he never knew he had, opened as the top weekend flick with $22.7 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.
The weekend had looked like it would be a showdown between "The Game Plan" and Universal's Middle East thriller "The Kingdom," which stars Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner as members of a U.S. team investigating a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia.
But "The Kingdom" fell short, debuting at No. 2 with a solid $17.7 million.
The previous weekend's top movie, Sony's action tale "Resident Evil: Extinction," fell a steep 66 percent from its opening-weekend gross, finishing in third place with $8 million and raising its total to $36.8 million.
Johnson was the latest action hero aiming to broaden his audience with a family film. With a PG rating, "The Game Plan" took advantage of a long dry spell for kid-friendly movies, as parents with children made up two-thirds of the audience.
"There was definitely pent-up demand for people who don't necessarily want to go to the heavy R-rated films," said Chuck Viane, head of distribution for Disney. "The entire general audience has been underserved lately."
"The Kingdom" faced heavy competition from other violent R-rated films, among them "3:10 to Yuma," "The Brave One" and "Eastern Promises." Though not an overtly political film, "The Kingdom" also had to test audience interest for action tales set against the war on terrorism.
"If you're going to tell stories like this, you're going to tell stories of what's actually going on in our world. It's very difficult, challenging subject matter," said Nikki Rocco, head of distribution for Universal. "Either you're going to like this kind of movie or you're not."
In limited release, Fox Searchlight's "The Darjeeling Limited" opened strongly, taking in $140,000 at two New York City theaters on Saturday and Sunday, following its premiere Friday at the New York Film Festival.
Directed by Wes Anderson ("The Royal Tenenbaums"), the film stars Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman as brothers on an odyssey across India.
Focus Features' World War II saga "Lust, Caution" also did well in its debut at one New York City theater, taking in $61,688. From director Ang Lee ("Brokeback Mountain"), the NC-17-rated "Lust, Caution" features scenes of explicit sex as a Chinese woman goes undercover in a plot to kill a man collaborating with invading Japanese forces.
Both films expand to more theaters Friday.
It was the second straight weekend that Hollywood business was down after a summer of record revenue. The top 12 movies took in $76.7 million, down 11 percent from the same weekend last year, when "Open Season" was the No. 1 movie with $23.6 million.
"What goes up must come down," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers. "It would be really difficult to maintain three, four months of up box office, so this was kind of inevitable. It was quite a strong fall last year, so we're having a little trouble competing."
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Media By Numbers LLC. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "The Game Plan," $22.7 million.
2. "The Kingdom," $17.7 million.
3. "Resident Evil: Extinction," $8 million.
4. "Good Luck Chuck," $6.3 million.
5. "3:10 to Yuma," $4.2 million.
6. "The Brave One," $3.8 million.
7. "Mr. Woodcock," $3 million.
8. "Eastern Promises," $2.9 million.
9. "Sydney White," $2.7 million.
10. "Across the Universe," $2.05 million.