By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Liam Neeson thriller "Taken 2" won a battle between two hostage movies over the weekend, holding on to its top box office rankings for a second week with $22.5 million from ticket sales at U.S. and Canadian theaters.
Ben Affleck's highly praised Iran hostage thriller "Argo" was as close second, earning $20.1 million from Friday through Sunday. Low-budget horror movie "Sinister" came in third with $18.3 million, according to studio estimates compiled by Reuters.
Action sequel "Taken 2" stars Neeson as a former CIA agent who is captured while on vacation in Istanbul. The movie has pulled in $86.8 million at North American (U.S. and Canadian) theaters since its debut a week ago, plus $132.8 million from international markets.
"We continue to play broadly across all demographics and it is a testament to the strength of Liam's character and the property," said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution at 20th Century Fox, which released the film.
With a worldwide box office total already reaching nearly $220 million, he said the film was close to equaling the final box office total of the first "Taken" movie ($226.8 million), and therefore labeled the sequel as "a much bigger movie."
"Taken 2" sales outpaced receipts for "Argo," a movie that Affleck stars in and directs. The film is based on a real-life CIA plot to smuggle six U.S. diplomats out of Iran in 1979 under the guise of a fake movie production.
The diplomats had escaped the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran at the height of the Islamic revolution. They hid at the Canadian embassy until a CIA agent came to sneak them out of the country.
"Argo" is generating buzz as an Oscar contender after earning stellar marks from critics, with 94 percent of reviews collected on the Rotten Tomatoes website praising the film. Ahead of the weekend, box-office forecasters had predicted an opening of $15 million or more.
"The movie is like the perfect storm, everything came together at the right time," said Dan Fellman, president of theatrical distribution for Warner Bros, noting that the combination of the film's appeal to all ages combined with critical acclaim and awards season buzz would spell a long commercial run.
"It's going to have legs," he said. "Critical acclaim is going to translate into commercial success."
Warner Bros. and GK Films paid about $44 million to produce the movie.
Sales for third-place film "Sinister" came in more than 6 times its tiny $3 million production budget. The movie stars Ethan Hawke as a crime novelist who moves into a new house and finds disturbing home movies. It was produced by Jason Blum, producer of the hit "Paranormal Activity" series of horror flicks.
Family film "Hotel Transylvania" held on to the No. 4 spot during its third weekend in theaters, pulling in $17.3 million. Total domestic sales since its debut reached $102.2 million.
New comedy "Here Comes the Boom," earned $12 million and landed in fifth place. The $40-million film stars Kevin James as a high-school biology teacher who competes in mixed martial arts to raise money for his school.
Another new entry, comedy "Seven Psychopaths," earned ninth place, grossing $4.3 million from a medium-sized run in about 1,500 theaters. The film stars Colin Farrell and Woody Harrelson in the story of a screenwriter who gets wrapped up in criminal activity after his friends kidnap a gangster's dog.
The movie, which won an 89 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, cost $15 million to make. It will expand to more theaters in two weeks.
Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc, released "Argo." "Taken 2" was distributed by News Corp's 20th Century Fox studio. Summit Entertainment, owned by Lions Gate Entertainment, released "Sinister."
Sony Corp's movie studio distributed "Hotel Transylvania" and "Here Comes the Boom." CBS Films, a unit of CBS Corp, released "Seven Psychopaths."
(Additional reporting by Christine Kearney, editing by Doina Chiacu and Gunna Dickson)