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Hollywood's newest action hero squared off against one of its oldest, and young upstarts ruled the weekend.

Lucy, Scarlett Johansson's sci-fi thriller, easily conquered Dwayne Johnson's swords-and-sandals epic Hercules at the box office, though both performed well for late July films.

Lucy ruled the multiplex with $44 million, according to studio estimates from Rentrak.

The debut was well above analysts' projections, which hovered around $30 million. But Johansson, whose recent roles have included the superhero Black Widow in the Avengers franchise and a disembodied voice in last year's Her, managed to "up her career once again," says David Mumpower, analyst for Box Office Prophets.

Mumpower says that "Lucy cleverly capitalizes on Johansson's ascent by placing her in the lead of a movie that takes the best elements of Limitless and The Matrix, and develops them into a unique action property."

Critics and fans appeared less impressed, though moviegoers turned out in droves. The movie earned a thumbs-up from 58% of critics, according to survey site Rotten Tomatoes, and fans gave it a middling C-plus, says pollsters CinemaScore.

But it was still plenty to defeat Hercules, which was an overperformer as well. The flick kicked up $29 million, well beyond its $20 million projections.

Hercules could enjoy strong word of mouth in the coming weeks: It earned a 63% approval rating from critics, and a B-plus from moviegoers.

With a budget of $100 million, "there is still some question about whether the studio will get what it has paid for," Mumpower says.

"What can be stated unequivocally is that The Rock is worth every penny of his asking price," he says of Johnson's salary, ranked recently by Forbes as the industry's second-highest at $52 million a year.

The action films supplanted Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which dropped from the top spot for the first time in two weeks, claiming third place with $16.4 million.

The Purge: Anarchy captured fourth place with $9.9 million, followed by the animated comedy Planes: Fire & Rescue with $9.3 million.

Final figures are expected Monday.

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