LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Kevin James comedy "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" captured the top spot at the North American box office for a second week in a row, beating back a challenge by the vampires and werewolves of "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans."
"Mall Cop," which stars James as a bumbling shopping mall security guard who takes on a gang of high-tech crooks, sold an estimated $21.5 million in tickets over the weekend and has now taken in a strong total of $64.8 million in two weeks, distributor Columbia Pictures said on Sunday.
James, the star of the sitcom "The King of Queens," also co-wrote and co-produced "Mall Cop," which was made for a modest $26 million and has become a major box office hit despite taking a drubbing from critics.
"This movie was not made for the critics, it was made for the audience, and that certainly paid off," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracking and analysis firm Media By Numbers.
"Its going to be a $100 million-plus movie now and I don't think anybody thought that was possible," he said.
Dergarabedian said that the success of "Cop" meant that "Kevin James is now a bona fide movie star" after nine years on television and in mostly sidekick film roles.
"Underworld," the third film in an action series chronicling a centuries-old battle between vampires and werewolves, also had a strong debut, falling just short of the top spot with $20.7 million.
Dergarabedian said "Underworld" had proven to be a reliable franchise, after the first two films claimed the top spot.
"The only reason this one didn't was because the vampires and werewolves had Paul Blart to contend with," he said.
In third place was Clint Eastwood's gritty suburban drama "Gran Torino," which took in $16 million to run its total to date to $97.6 million.
This weekend's box office tally also reflected the Oscar nominations, which gave a significant bounce to most of the contending films.
"Slumdog Millionaire," the tale of an impoverished orphan's improbably game-show victory which received 10 Academy Award nominations, including best picture, saw ticket sales up 80 percent to $10.5 million, putting it in the fifth spot behind family comedy "Hotel for Dogs."
And "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which led all films with 13 Oscar nominations, returned to the top 10 by taking in $6 million over the weekend, good enough for 9th on the list and pushing the Brad Pitt star vehicle to $111 million total.
Columbia Pictures, which released "Mall Cop," and Screen Gems, which released "Underworld," are both are units of Sony Corp..
"Gran Torino" was released by Warner Bros, a unit of Time Warner Inc..
"Hotel for Dogs" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button were released by Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc.
"Slumdog Millionaire" was released by Fox Searchlight, a unit of News Corp.
Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Osterman