The follow-up's solid pay day over the four-day Labor Day weekend was more than twice the haul for "The Transporter," which took in $9.1 million in its three-day opening weekend in October 2002.
"Transporter 2" took over the No. 1 slot from "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," which slipped to second place with $16.6 million after two weekends on top, according to studio estimates Sunday. Holding strongly, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" raised its total domestic gross to $71.9 million.
The well-reviewed "The Constant Gardener," starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz in a John le Carre suspense thriller, premiered in third place with $10.8 million, a solid opening given that it played in just 1,346 theaters, nearly 2,000 fewer than "Transporter 2."
On the flip side were two new wide releases soundly trashed by critics and generally ignored by audiences.
"Underclassman," an action comedy starring Nick Cannon as a cop who goes undercover at a posh high school to investigate a murder, flopped with just $3.1 million.
"A Sound of Thunder," with Edward Burns and Ben Kingsley in an adaptation of Ray Bradbury's sci-fi story about time travelers who disrupt evolution on a trip to visit dinosaurs, bombed with a paltry $1.15 million.
Hollywood ended its worst summer for movie attendance since 1997 on a positive note, with overall revenues rising during the long weekend. The top 12 movies took in $96.4 million, up 16 percent from Labor Day weekend last year.
"It's somewhat ironic in the final weekend of one of the worst summers ever that we have a strong showing," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. "Hopefully, this sets a positive tone heading into the fall and holiday season."
Domestic grosses from early May through Labor Day were down 9 percent compared to summer 2004, according to Exhibitor Relations. Factoring in higher ticket prices, attendance was off 12 percent.
Labor Day typically is a slow time at theaters, yet "Transporter 2" had a record debut for the period, beating the previous high of $18.4 million held by "Jeepers Creepers 2" over the same weekend in 2003.
In just four days, "Transporter 2" nearly matched the total domestic gross of $25.3 million for "The Transporter."
The sequel features Statham's character on break from his high-octane gig as an ace deliveryman of illicit goods, but forced back into action when the boy he chauffeurs is kidnapped by terrorists in a plot to spread a virus among top drug-enforcement officials.
"People love the character," said Bert Livingston, a distribution executive for 20th Century Fox, which released both "Transporter" flicks. "It's escapism, and with all the tragedy going on in New Orleans, I think people want to get away and lose themselves for an hour and a half."
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Monday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Final figures will be released Tuesday.
1. "Transporter 2," $20.25 million.
2. "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," $16.6 million.
3. "The Constant Gardener," $10.8 million.
4. "Red Eye," $9.3 million.
5. "The Brothers Grimm," $7.9 million.
6. "Four Brothers," $6.4 million.
7. "Wedding Crashers," $5.8 million.
8. "March of the Penguins," $5.4 million.
9. "The Skeleton Key," $4.1 million.
10. "The Cave," $3.7 million.