June 25, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

The car racing thriller ”The Fast and the Furious” zoomed past the competition this weekend, scoring an estimated $41.6 million for a first place box office finish. Industry watchers had expected strong returns from the high speed action flick, but the movie’s runaway debut was a shock even to the film’s distributor, Universal, which had estimated the $38 million budgeted feature would open with about $20 million.

Gitesh Pandya, editor of box officeguru.com, credits the car chase film’s success partly to the youth oriented appeal of its sexy ensemble cast, including Vin Diesel (”Pitch Black”), Paul Walker (”The Skulls”), Michelle Rodriguez (”Girlfight”), and Jordana Brewster (”The Faculty”). ”The stars aren’t huge expensive A list stars, but some will be big in years to come,” he tells EW.com. ”Diesel’s power is really rising, ‘Girl Fight’ gave Rodriquez indie cred.” All in all, he adds, ”Fast” is a movie that ”knows what it is — an action thriller for the young set.” And the youth crowd is all it takes for a hit: Studio polls show that 75 percent of the movie’s audience was under 25.

The remaining top five films were left in the dust. The Eddie Murphy sequel ”Dr. Dolittle 2” opened at No. 2 with $26.7 — that’s $2.3 million less than the debut for the 1998 original. ”Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” lost a hefty 55 percent of its opening weekend audience, sliding two spots to No. 3 with $20.2 million. Walt Disney’s ”Atlantis: The Lost Empire” finished at No. 4 with $13.2 million, while the animated ”Shrek” (No. 5) added another $11 million to its $215.8 million 40 day take. This might be the last time we see the Ogre among the top five. The Steven Spielberg directed sci fi film ”A.I.” — starring Haley Joel Osment — is sure to entice a wide audience when it debuts next weekend. If the film’s marketers have dispelled notions that the highly secretive project is about steak sauce, that is.

CRITICAL MASS The blockbuster appeal of ”The Fast and the Furious”’ is no surprise to EW.com’s readers. Voters overall scored the speed happy flick a healthy B+, far higher than the critics’ average of C. Universal’s savvy ad campaign can be credited for getting voters to see the film: More than half said they saw ”Fast” because of its breakneck trailers. But word of mouth is likely to keep the movie doing victory laps for weeks to come: Nearly 70 percent said the film was far better than they had expected and 83 percent said that they will definitely recommend the movie to friends.

Word of mouth may also explain how ”Fast” lured action hungry crowds away from its more heavily hyped competitor ”Tomb Raider.” According to EW.com’s readers, the Angelina Jolie video game adaptation has not lived up to hopes. Voters gave the film an average grade of B- — right on par with the critics’ — and more than a third say the film was far worse than expected. While a healthy 42 percent said the would recommend the movie to friends, nearly the same number indicated that they were unlikely to return to theaters to witness Lara Croft’s exploits again. Maybe in the sequel they should consider giving her a cooler car.

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