- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Chris Rock rolled at the box office this past weekend, and as the comic might exclaim, it’s about (expletive) time.

His “Madagascar” and “The Longest Yard” came in second and third place over the Memorial Day break, scratching up roughly $60 million each in their debut week.

The comic has been trying for nearly a decade to leverage his blistering stand-up routines into an acting career, and his investment finally may be paying dividends.

It didn’t happen without a few major missteps.

Mr. Rock, whose tenure on “Saturday Night Live” didn’t grant him breakout status, found his voice later as a stand-up comic.

His comedy special “Bring the Pain” shook the establishment with its uncompromising racial humor and raw musings. Sure his work was blue, but it ripped aside preconceptions and made us see race with fresh eyes.

The predictable follow-up for Mr. Rock, who enjoyed a second television boost with his self-titled HBO show, was to head for Hollywood.

Imagine that feral tongue unleashed in a buddy film or a no-holds-barred comedy. An early attempt seemed promising. His work as Pookie the crack addict in 1991’s “New Jack City” hinted at his acting potential.

But for a while now, his transition to big-screen fame has been as ugly as an “SNL” sketch relegated to the final half-hour segment.

He drew a few smirks as the wisecracking addition to the “Lethal Weapon” franchise in 1998 but looked lost in the following year’s “Dogma.”

Worse, he seemed overmatched on-screen, as if all his comic tics were working against him.

Put plainly, it didn’t look as if he could act — or draw a crowd.

1999’s “Nurse Betty” reinforced those suspicions, and when he starred in leaden vehicles such as “Down to Earth” (2001) and “Head of State” (2003), many guessed time had run out on his hopes of a major film career.

Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo, a Burbank, Calif.-based Web site covering film releases (www.boxofficemojo.com), says it’s premature to declare Mr. Rock a bona fide draw given his supporting work in “Yard” and “Madagascar.”

“With these two pictures he showed he can be able support, providing the extra comic punch,” Mr. Gray says. “Now he has a better choice of movies to perform in based on these pictures’ success. His options are far more open now.”

It’s ironic that the first film to play to his strengths in years came in an animated feature, “Madagascar.” His vocal turn as Marty the Zebra let him wield that raspy yelp of his without drowning its tender side.

In “Yard,” the remake of Burt Reynolds’ 1974 prison flick, his role as Caretaker, the inmate who survives on his wits, suits Mr. Rock snugly, and it even provides the macho film’s blubbery heart.

That’s progress, in terms of both Mr. Rock’s on-screen work and his ability to select roles.

Mr. Rock didn’t seem comfortable hosting the Oscar telecast earlier this year. Too many restrictions on his vocabulary and ability to strike targets when in range.

Film could offer enough wiggle room to keep Mr. Rock on a roll for the foreseeable future.

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