Ride Along Makes Kevin Hart a Big Movie Star

With a record-breaking holiday weekend to his credit, the bantam comic is ready for his closeup

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Universal Pictures / AP

If America were still a place where only white people counted, as some Nativists might wish, this weekend’s no. 1 movie would have been the animated feature The Nut Job or the espionage thriller Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. But the U.S. film audience is a rainbow coalition, at least for an action comedy with an African-American actor bursting to stardom.

Ride Along, with Kevin Hart as a wannabe policeman schooled by veteran cop Ice Cube in the grosser points of patrolling the Atlanta streets, set a Jan. box-office record at North American theaters with $41.5 million for the three days of the weekend and $48.6 million for the full four-day Martin Luther King holiday. In raw numbers, that beats the previous champ, the found-footage monster movie Cloverfield in 2008 — though, in real dollars, Cloverfield’s three-day $40 million would be $46.5 million today, and its four-day $46.1 million would be $53.5 million.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Ride Along)

Either way, the sensational figures provide evidence that Hart, the 5ft.2in. bantam of belligerence, is about to be a big star, if he isn’t already. An energetic supporting player in such movies as Little Fockers, Think Like a Man and Grudge Match, Hart broke out in 2011 with his concert film Laugh at My Pain, which grossed $7.7 million on no budget at all, then certified his standup clout with last year’s Let Me Explain, which earned $32.2 million, for the highest comedy concert film revenue since the $50.4 million for Eddie Murphy Raw in 1987. In his spare time, Hart produces and stars in his BET reality-show parody, Real Husbands of Hollywood, the highest-rated cable sitcom among adults 18 to 49. Chris Rock once told him, “I’m famous. You’re black famous” — a star only to audiences of color. If Ride Along is any guide, Hart is about to become Famous.

(READ: TIME’s review of Think Like a Man)

Yet the demographic data indicate that the PG-13-rated Ride Along is less a blockbuster than a blackbuster. Its weekend audience was 50% African-American, 30% Hispanic and only 12% Caucasian. So whites bought only about $5 million worth of Ride Along tickets, far less than they did for either Jack Ryan or The Nut Job. For a buddy-cop movie, Ride Along also skewed interestingly female (57%) and a tad older than expected (54% over 25); early viewers gave it a sterling “A” rating in the CinemaScore survey. The film, which cost just $25 million to produce, should entice a more diverse crowd as word of its earthy merits spreads. Then we’ll see if Kevin Hart can become just plain famous — or Eddie Murphy famous — without doing a buddy-cop movie with a white star.

(READ: Joel Stein’s profile of Kevin Hart)

The budget for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was about $60 million, or more than twice that of Ride Along, yet it opened to well under half of the Hart movie’s gross: $15.5 million for three days, $18 million for four. Chris Pine, who took over the Tom Clancy spy role previously occupied by Alec Baldwin (in The Hunt for Red October), Harrison Ford (in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger) and Ben Affleck (in The Sum of All Fears), may play the young James Kirk in the Star Trek reboot, but he is not a movie star. He’s not even white famous.

(READ: Mary Pols on the 2009 Star Trek reboot)

A perfectly efficient CIA thriller, Shadow Recruit opened at a lower three-day figure than any of its Ryan predecessors, including the $17.7 million earned 24 years ago by The Hunt for Red October, which went on to a $200-million global gross. (The four earlier Clancy films earned nearly $800 million worldwide.) The early audience for JR:SR was 52% male and a geriatric 85% over the age of 25; it received a “B” (as in blah) CinemaScore. If this origins saga is to be a true revival and not an exhumation, it will need to be monster-big abroad.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Taking a frost-bite out of Frozen, the squirrels of The Nut Job landed in third place over the weekend and pushed the Disney princess movie down to fifth after a strong Dec. and early Jan. run; in less than two months, Frozen has crossed $750 million worldwide to become one of the Disney studio’s all-time winners. A coproduction from Canada and South Korea, The Nut Job cost just $42 million and pulled a CinemaScore of B — both very low for an animated feature. Another Jan. dump job, the found-footage horror film Devil’s Due, managed less than $10 million for the full holiday weekend, and an abysmal CinemaScore of D-plus — or, as its producers might spin it, “D plus!”

(SEE: Disney princesses, from Snow White to Frozen)

Moviegoers in search of “A” fare might have visited one of the films nominated last Thu. for an Oscar. But the week of nonstop awards hype, from the Golden Globes to the Critics Choice and the Screen Actors Guild awards, all televised like the announcement of the Academy shortlist, saw little payoff at the box office. American Hustle was the only Best Picture nominee to get an Oscar jolt: up 19% from last week, to $9.9 million, though playing in 425 fewer theaters.

(READ: American Hustle vs. 12 Years a Slave battle at the Oscars)
The Wolf of Wall Street lost 20% of its screens and 20% of its business. Spike Jonze’s her held its theater count but fell 25%. And none of the other Best Picture finalists cracked $2 million for the three days: not Gravity (back in 944 venues for $1.9 million) or 12 Years a Slave ($1.5 million in 761 theaters) or Philomena ($1.3 million in 505) or Dallas Buyers Club ($941,207 in 419) or Nebraska (883,208 in 408) or Captain Phillips ($523,771 in 903).

(READ: Why Gravity won’t win the Best Picture Oscar)

Some of these films have played successfully for months. Gravity has grossed more than $250 million, American Hustle and Captain Phillips more than $100 million; and those two will soon be joined by The Wolf of Wall Street. Other nominees, like Philomena, Dallas and Nebraska, will be happy to earn $20 million to $30 million in their total theatrical runs.

But none got a sizable Oscar bump — not this weekend, when the big attraction was the little guy from Philly. He’ll remember the 2014 Martin Luther King holiday as that magic Hollywood moment when he went from “Who’s Kevin Hart?” to “Get me Kevin Hart!”

Here are the actual figures for this holiday weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, with totals for Friday-to-Sunday (three days), and Friday-to-Monday (four days), as reported today by Box Office Mojo:

1. Ride Along, $41.5 million, first three days; $48.6 million, first four days
2. Lone Survivor, $22.1 million, three days; $25.9 million; $77.2 million, second week
3. The Nut Job, $19.4 million, first three days; $25.7 million, first four days
4. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, $15.5 million, first three days; $18 million, first four days
5. Frozen, $11.8 million, three days; $16.1 million; $336.9 million, ninth week
6. American Hustle, $9.9 million, three days; $11.8 million, four days; $117.3 million, sixth week
7. Devil’s Due, $8.3 million, first three days; $9.1 million, first four days
8. August: Osage County, $7.4 million, three days; $8.8 million; $19.5 million, fourth week
9. The Wolf of Wall Street, $7.1 million, three days; $8.4 million, four days; $91.1 million, fourth week
10. her, $4 million, three days; $4.8 million, four days; $15.7 million, fifth week