The on-screen reunion of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in Fast & Furious delivered the biggest launch of the year-to-date with a spectacular $72.5m estimated gross reminiscent of summer launches that also set a new April opening weekend record and produced the biggest debut in Universal’s eight-year action franchise.

Diesel and Walker blew away any doubts that this latest pairing would revive the franchise, which took a dip three years ago when The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift became the first in the series not to cross $100m in North America.

The domestic opening weekend obliterated the previous April high-water mark of $42.2m set by Anger Management that had stood since 2003. While nobody will be happier than Universal executives, the result will also delight exhibitors, some of whom urged the studios last week at ShoWest to spread out their blockbuster releases and create a 52-week calendar.

Fast & Furious has already taken more than the entire $62.5m North American run that its predecessor - also directed by Taiwan-born Justin Lin - managed, and Universal executives will be looking to overtake the $144.5m and $127.2m final domestic tallies set by The Fast And The Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious,respectively.

Combined with this weekend’s superb $30.1m international launch through UPI, Fast & Furious has already taken $102.6m worldwide and looks good to overtake 2 Fast 2 Furious’ $236.4m global tally to become the biggest hit in the series. That film remains the only one so far to cross $100m internationally, although The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift came close on $95.9m.

DreamWorks Animation’s Monsters Vs Aliens crossed $100m in its second weekend as it slipped to number two and added $33.5m through Paramount after a 43.5% drop for a $105.7m running total. In third place Lionsgate’s The Haunting In Connecticut fell 58.5%, which is towards the higher end of the typical drop zone for a genre film in its second weekend, on $9.6m for $37.2m.

Summit Entertainment’s sci-fi thriller Knowing continues to be a solid performer and ranks fourth on $8.1m for $58.2m after dropping 44.7% in its third weekend. Fox’s action release 12 Rounds fell 56.8% and two places to ninth in its second weekend on $2.3m for just over $9m.

Miramax’s rites-of-passage comedy Adventureland starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart launched in sixth place on a whisker over $6m following its Sundance world premiere back in January. Overture Films’ comedy Sunshine Cleaning, which debuted at Sundance in 2008, broke into the top ten in its fourth weekend after expanding from 167 to 479 theatres and grossed $1.9m for $4.8m.

Watchmen dropped out of the top ten and dropped 60.3% in its fifth weekend and fell five places to number 13 through Warner Bros on $1.1m for $105.4m.

North American box office is running 14.5% ahead of the same portion of 2008 on $2.57bn, according to Media By Numbers. Admissions have climbed 12.8% year-on-year, factoring in the rise in ticket prices.

Next weekend’s wide releases are: Disney’s Hannah Montana: The Movie starring Miley Cyrus; Fox’s fantasy adventure Dragonball Evolution, which has already grossed more than $25m overseas; and Warner Bros’ Seth Rogen comedy Observe And Report.

Estimated Top 10 North America April 3-5 2009
Film (Dist)/Int’l dist/Est wkd gross/Est total to date

1 (-) Fast & Furious (Universal) UPI $72.5m -
2 (1) Monsters Vs Aliens(DreamWorks Animation-Paramount) PPI $33.5m $105.7m
3 (2) The Haunting In Connecticut (Lionsgate) $9.6m $37.2m
4 (3) Knowing (Summit) Summit Int’l $8.1m $58.2m
5 (4) I Love You, Man(DreamWorks-Paramount) PPI $7.9m $49.3m
6 (-) Adventureland(Miramax) WDSMPI $6m -
7 (5) Duplicity(Universal) Relativity Media $4.3m $32.4m
8 (6) Race To Witch Mountain (Buena Vista) WDSMPI $3.4m $58.4m
9 (7) 12 Rounds (Fox) Fox Int’l $2.3m $9m
10 (11) Sunshine Cleaning(Overture Films) HanWay Films $1.9m $4.8m