The tale of a modern American teen hurtled back in time to a kung fu adventure in ancient China, "The Forbidden Kingdom" features Asian superstars Chan and Li in multiple roles and their first big-screen duel.
"I couldn't believe it had never been done before," said Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Co. released "The Forbidden Kingdom" along with partner Lionsgate.
Universal's romantic comedy "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," starring Jason Segel as a nice guy who's dumped by his glamorous girlfriend (Kristen Bell), opened in second place with $17.3 million. It's the latest from producer Judd Apatow ("Knocked Up").
The previous weekend's No. 1 movie, the slasher remake "Prom Night," fell to third with $9.1 million, raising its total to $32.6 million.
Al Pacino's serial killer thriller "88 Minutes," from Sony's TriStar Pictures, was a dud, premiering at No. 4 with $6.8 million. The movie stars Pacino as a crime profiler who receives a call telling him he has 88 minutes to live.
"Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," a rare documentary opening in wide release, debuted at No. 9 with $3.1 million. Released by Rocky Mountain Pictures, the film features Ben Stein as he challenges Darwinian theories that prevail in academic circles and suggests that life could have emerged through intelligent design.
In narrower release, the Weinstein Co. documentary "Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?" bombed with just $143,299 in 102 theaters, averaging a paltry $1,405 a cinema. "Forbidden Kingdom" averaged $6,623 in 3,151 theaters.
A globe-trotting hunt for the al Qaeda leader, "Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?" was directed by Morgan Spurlock, who made the hit documentary "Super Size Me."
With a PG-13 rating, "The Forbidden Kingdom" proved a family friendly film compared to more action-intense martial arts flicks. The movie is part of a new Asian line of films from the Weinstein Co., including an upcoming remake of "Seven Samurai."
"I have three daughters who have never seen a martial arts movie, and they loved this," Weinstein said. "A lot of females identify with it. That's the audience that's going to grow. I think we'll get young girls and moms next weekend."
Overall receipts were up for the first time in a month as Hollywood lumbers through a prolonged dry spell. The top 12 movies took in $82.1 million, up 12 percent from the same weekend last year.
"There is a collective sigh of relief in Hollywood," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracker Media By Numbers. "This is overdue and much needed as we head toward the beginning of the summer season."
Movie attendance is running 6.5 percent behind that of 2007, according to Media By Numbers.
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 Forbidden Kingdom," $20.9 million.
2. "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," $17.3 million.
3. "Prom Night," $9.1 million.
4. "88 Minutes," $6.8 million.
5. "Nim's Island," $5.7 million.
6. "21," $5.5 million.
7. "Street Kings," $4 million.
8. "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!", $3.5 million.
9. "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," $3.1 million.
10. "Leatherheads," $3 million.