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'Ride Along 2' is likely to take over No. 1 spot at box office this weekend

 'Ride Along 2' is likely to take over No. 1 spot at box office this weekend
Ice Cube, left, stars as James Payton and Kevin Hart as Ben Barber in a scene from "Ride Along 2," the sequel to Universal Pictures’ 2014 surprise buddy cop comedy. (Quantrell D. Colbert / Universal Pictures)

Kevin Hart and Ice Cube are set to finally unseat "Star Wars" at the box office with the release of "Ride Along 2" over the Martin Luther King Day weekend.

The sequel to Universal Pictures' 2014 surprise buddy cop comedy hit is expected to gross around $40 million to $45 million in ticket sales through Monday in the U.S. and Canada, according to people who have reviewed pre-release audience tracking surveys. That should be enough to top "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which has held the No. 1 spot for four straight weekends.

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It should also comfortably beat newcomers including the Michael Bay film "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi," as well as strong holdovers, such as the brutal, award-winning Leonardo DiCaprio epic "The Revenant."

The strength of "Ride Along 2" should provide some more momentum to a cinema industry that's off to a robust start this year thanks to "Star Wars" and the latest DiCaprio film, which did better than expected business in its nationwide debut last weekend. As of Sunday, the U.S.-Canada box-office has generated $444 million so far this year, up 27% from the same time in 2015, according to Rentrak.

The first "Ride Along" was a surprise hit over the same holiday weekend two years ago, when it launched to an impressive $48.6 million domestically thanks to an especially strong turnout of black moviegoers. The PG-13 comedy ended up with a total of nearly $135 million in the U.S. and Canada.

With Tim Story returning to direct, "Ride Along 2" should benefit from the continued box-office draw of Kevin Hart, as well as Ice Cube — real name, O'Shea Jackson — whose son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., portrayed him in last year's N.W.A biopic "Straight Outta Compton."

"A perfect release date for the first film sets the stage for this latest installment to capitalize on the popularity of Kevin Hart and Ice Cube and perhaps rival the first film's $40-million-plus debut," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for the entertainment data firm Rentrak.

"The Revenant," released by 20th Century Fox, could usurp the No. 2 position on the domestic charts thanks to multiple wins at Sunday's Golden Globe Awards, where it came away with honors for best motion picture drama, director (Alejandro G. Iñárritu) and actor (DiCaprio). It could also get a boost from Oscar nominations to be announced Thursday.

Meanwhile, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" should add $20 million or so to its massive total. The movie became the highest-grossing film in U.S.-Canada history last week (not adjusted for inflation) and has generated $816 million as of Monday. Globally, it's the No. 3 all-time film ($1.75 billion), behind "Titanic" and "Avatar." "Star Wars" debuted in China on Saturday and has grossed about $60 million in that country so far.

Elsewhere in theaters, Michael Bay's new action-thriller "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" is hoping to tap into the same patriotic audience that turned out for other recent military hits like "American Sniper" and "Lone Survivor," though it's not expected to open as well as those films.

The Paramount Pictures release tells the story of six elite security contractors who fought back against the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. It's expected to take in around $20 million during the four-day weekend.

"13 Hours," which cost about $50 million to make, held its premiere at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where the NFL's Dallas Cowboys play their home games.

Some Republicans, who have long criticized presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for her handling of the crisis in Benghazi while she was secretary of State, have tried to capitalize on the release of the movie. This week, conservative groups Future45 and America Rising announced that they will host a private screening of the film in Washington, D.C.

Bay and the studio have insisted that the movie is not political and is not about Clinton. Still, the politicization of the events could dissuade moviegoers in more left-leaning states from seeing the film.

The only other new release the week is the Lionsgate animated adventure "Norm of the North" about a displaced Arctic polar bear in New York City. It's not expected to post a big number in its opening weekend. The cartoon is likely to gross $5 million to $7 million through Monday.

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Twitter: @RFaughnder

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