Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboacame out swinging on Wednesday, pummeling the competition with a take of 6.4 million in its debut, but the real contender for the box-office championship over the holiday weekend doesn't even enter the ring until tonight (Friday), when the Ben Stiller comedy Night at the Museumopens. Two other potent challengers also enter the fray: We Are Marshall, based on events surrounding the 1970 plane crash that killed the Marshall University football team,and The Good Shepherd., the Robert De Niro film about the early days of the CIA, while Dreamgirls, about a Supremes-like female pop group expands to 852 theaters. Most box-office analysts are betting on Museumto win with about $35-40 million, followed close behind by the latest Rockysequel, which, they say, is due to take in about $30 million.


Night at the Museumappears to be one of those critic-proof movies that moviegoers decided to see or not to see when the trailers came out. It's a good thing, too, since the movie is getting hammered by most reviewers. Some of the descriptions: Jan Stuart in Newsday: "pea-brained;" Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune:"charmless;" Stephen Holden in the New York Times: "an overstuffed grab bag;" Kevin Crust in the Los Angeles Times: "tedious ... uninspired;" Lou Lumenick in the New York Post: "hackneyed." Still the film does attract some favorable comment, mostly for its special effects. Nancy Churnin in the Dallas Morning Newscalls them "a blast." Carrie Rickey in the Philadelphia Inquirerwrites: "If the filmmakers had a script half as good as their special effects, Night at the Museum would be a must-see." But Bill Zwecker in the Chicago Sun-Times observes, "It's unconscionable for a major studio release to feature such shoddy effects. Throughout the entire film, everything looked as fake as could be."


Critics seem to regard Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd with respect. That's not to say they like it. Take, for example, Gene Seymour's review in Newsday, which concludes that the movie "absorbs without resonating, impresses without arousing." "The CIA is a fascinating creature, but The Good Shepherd is as impenetrable as the organization itself," concludes Matt Pais in the Chicago Tribune.Manohla Dargis in the New York Timeswrites that the film asks some hard questions about the nature of government intelligence, "but they are also too big, too complex and perhaps too painful for even this ambitious (2 hours, 37 minutes) project, which can only elude and insinuate, not enlighten and inform." On the other hand, Chris Vognar in the Dallas Morning Newsoffers high praise for the movie. "It takes its audience's intelligence for granted and rewards it at every turn," he writes. And Stephen Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirercalls the movie, "a cool-headed thriller."


If the public reacts to We Are Marshallthe way many critics have, the film will come crashing down like the plane that carried 75 Marshall University players to their deaths in 1970. Jan Stuart in Newsdaydismisses it as "a depressingly mechanical sports drama that seems not to have been written and directed so much as home assembled, Ikea-style, by pictorial instruction." Stephen Holden in the New York Timesis one of numerous critics who call the film formulaic, adding that it "is nothing if not rah-rah. By the end of the movie, the three words of its title, which become the community's rallying cry, have been shouted into your ears so insistently you will never want to hear them again." Peter Howell in the Toronto Starwrites that the movie "is so predictable, it makes the Capistrano swallows seem arbitrary and reckless by comparison." But Kevin Crust in the Los Angeles Times remarks that none of all that really matters. The film, he says, "will grab you by the face mask and make you take notice." Likewise Eleanor Ringel Gillespie writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:: "It's as predictable as the final Big Game, but director McG -- the one-name phenom who made something presentable out of Charlie's Angels -- applies that same audience-friendly expertise here."