U.S. and Canadian filmgoers turned out for a third time to see Liam Neeson in his action movie franchise "Taken," which led box office charts over the weekend with $40.4 million in ticket sales.
Civil rights film "Selma" finished in second place with $11.2 million from Friday through Sunday as the awards contender expanded to more theaters.
Disney's film version of the dark Broadway musical "Into The Woods" came in third with $9.8 million, according to estimates from tracking firm Rentrak. The Golden Globe-nominated film starring Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep has now totaled more than $105 million since opening on Christmas day.
"Taken 3" stars Neeson as former CIA agent Bryan Mills, a role that has helped establish the 62-year-old as an action star. In the third installment, Mills is on the run after he is accused of a murder he didn't commit.
The movie, which cost $48 million, opened far stronger than the $28 million forecast by Box Office Mojo and also expected by 20th Century Fox, the unit of 21st Century Fox which released it.
Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution at Fox, said the brawny result spoke to the popularity of the Mills character, who he said had proven to be "compelling to both men and women."
Releasing it after the onslaught of prestige year-end films also helped, said Aronson, who noted, "This is the first popcorn, escapist film of the year, and audiences were absolutely primed for that."
"Selma" stars David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. in the story of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, for black voters' rights. The $20 million movie opened in a limited release in December and expanded this weekend to nearly 2,200 theaters.
The movie distributed by Viacom Inc's Paramount Pictures has won widespread critical acclaim and is a nominee at Sunday night's Golden Globe awards for best film drama. Oprah Winfrey was a producer and plays a supporting role.
In fourth place, "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" earned $9.4 million after leading the box office for three consecutive weekends. The final installment in the film series, released by Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros., has taken in $236.5 million since opening on Dec. 17.
Fifth place went to "Unbroken," the story of Olympic runner and POW survivor Louis Zamperini, which collected $8.4 million. "Unbroken" was released by Universal Pictures, a unit of Comcast Corp.