Liam Neeson’s ‘Taken 3’ Goes Out with Guns Blazing at Box Office

Finale to Fox’s vengeance franchise powers to $40 million triumph as Oscar hopeful “Selma” stumbles in expansion

Liam Neeson and “Taken 3” went out with a loud bang at the box office this weekend, opening to a better-than-expected $40.4 million as the highly regarded civil rights drama “Selma” stumbled in its national expansion.

The final installment of the EuropaCorp vengeance movie franchise that turned the 62-year-old Neeson into an action star knocked “The Hobbit” out of the top spot after three weeks with the second-best January opening ever, and easily outpaced the weekend’s other wide opener, the awards hopeful “Selma.” And with another $41 million in grosses from overseas, “Taken 3” had an $81 million weekend globally.

Paramount Pictures expanded “Selma” from 22 to 2,179 theaters and it wound up second with an estimated $11.2 million three-day total, under the expectations of analysts and the studio. By comparison, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” opened to $24.6 million last year, but that was in far more theaters (2,933) and August, a less-competitive slot for awards hopefuls.The underwhelming debut capped a tough week for the Ava DuVernay-directed drama, which was overlooked for top honors at the British Academy Film Awards nominations Friday, after being similarly snubbed by the Producers Guild earlier in the week.

Disney’s musical “Into the Woods” edged “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” for third with $9.7 million, and the adaptation of Stephen Sondheim‘s Broadway hit has taken in more than $105 million domestically since opening on Christmas Day. “Five Armies,” the finale in Peter Jackson‘s Middle Earth epic from New Line and MGM, is up to more than $236 million after four weeks for distributor Warner Bros., and $753 million globally.

Universal Pictures’ “Unbroken,” the Angelina Jolie-directed biopic about war hero Louis Zamperini, was next with an $8.3 million third week that lifted its domestic total to $101 million.

After a strong holiday season, the overall box office slowed. It was down about 11 percent from the comparable frame last year, when the war saga “Lone Survivor” led the way with a $37.8 million debut.

The opening for “Taken 3” is above the projections of analysts and Fox, who had seen it landing in the $30 million range. And it’s the second-best ever in January, trailing only Kevin Hart‘s “Ride Along,” which debuted with $44.5 million last year.

The franchise finale will finish between the debut numbers of “Taken 2,” which opened to $49.5 million two years ago, and the $24.7 million that the original managed on Super Bowl weekend in 2009. Both wound up with around $140 million domestically. And it’s better than the openings of several of the action films that the success of “Taken” spurred, “Unknown,” “The Grey” and “Non-Stop.”

“I think audiences have a genuine affinity for this character,” said Chris Aronson, Fox’s president of domestic distribution. “He’s a bad ass for guys, and he has a sensitive side for women.” The audience for “Taken 3” was 64 percent male and 54 percent over the age of 25. They gave the film a “B+” CinemaScore, and were more impressed than the critics, who have it at a puny 12 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes.

“Taken 3” has a $48 million production budget and was financed and produced by the French company EuropaCorp, which is distributing it in France and with partners in several European territories.  The company founded by Luc Besson has a track record of making action films like the “Taken” and “Transporter” series profitable, and scored big last year with the breakout hit “Lucy.”

“Taken 3” was directed by Olivier Megaton (“Taken 2”) and written by Robert Kamen and Besson. Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Forest Whitaker and Dougray Scott co-star.

“Selma” was expected to land in the mid to high-teen millions by analysts and the studio. It had performed strongly and earned $2 million in limited release since opening in 23 theaters on Christmas Day. But making the mainstream leap may take some time for the historical drama based on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches in Alabama. The film has been drawn into a controversy after questions surrounding the historical accuracy of the relationship between Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson.

The “Selma” crowd was 61 percent women and a whopping 83 percent was over the age of 25. They were as impressed as the critics, who have it at 98 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes. Both the age of the audience and their opinion of the film will be factors in the coming weeks, said Megan Colligan, Paramount’s head of domestic marketing and distribution.

“Older audiences tend to come out a little more slowly than others,” she said. “And as incredibly positive as it is, the word of mouth is going to take some time to connect. We’re playing a different game than ‘Taken 3” or ‘The Wedding Ringer,’ and we feel really good about where we are.” The film should get a big boost next week, on Martin Luther King Day weekend.

David Oyelowo stars as King, Tom Wilkinson as President Johnson, rapper-turned-actor Common as James Bevel and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. Oprah Winfrey has a supporting role and is a producer on the $20 million film, along with Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and DuVernay.

“The Imitation Game,” the Weinstein Company awards hopeful starring Benedict Cumberbatch, was sixth with $7.6 million, which raises its domestic total past $40 million after seven weeks. Fox’s “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” was next with $6.7 million and is about to pass $100 million after four weeks.

Sony’s “Annie” nipped the Relativity Studios horror sequel “The Woman in Black: The Angel of Death” for eighth and lifted its domestic total to nearly $80 million after four weeks.

The studio also expanded the Paul Thomas Anderson crime drama “Inherent Vice” into 645 theaters, up from 16 last week, and it missed the top ten with $2.8 million.