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Liam Neeson and his very particular set of skills made quick work of “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” as “Taken 3” captured the top spot at the weekend box office.

The third chapter in the saga of a former government agent who keeps being lured out of retirement by various baddies hell-bent on breaking up his nuclear family premiered to $40.4 million across 3,594 theaters. That handily beat tracking, which suggested an opening closer to $30 million, and ranks as the second best January debut of all time, behind only “Ride Along,” which bowed to $41.5 million.

Neeson’s return to ass-kicking ended “The Hobbit’s” three-week run as domestic ticket sales champ. The Middle-earth finale dropped to fourth place, picking up $9.4 million and bringing its Stateside total to $236.5 million.

Neeson’s signature franchise showed no signs of fatigue. In comparison, “Taken 2” kicked off to $49.5 million in 2012, while the original film debuted to $24.7 million in 2009. “Taken 3” was produced by EuropaCorp for $48 million and distributed by 20th Century Fox. That makes for some muscular profit margins and once again confirms Neeson’s status as this generation’s Charles Bronson.

“People identify with this Bryan Mills character,” said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution at 20th Century Fox. “He’s got that caring fatherly element even though he’s also a badass, and that resonates with all audiences.”

In this case, the universal appeal of “Taken 3” manifested in an audience that was 54% male and 64% over the age of 25.

Even with “Taken 3” trouncing projections, the top 20 films trailed the year-ago period by nearly 10%, failing to match the combined heft of “Lone Survivor” and “Frozen.” Although studio executives and theater owners expect that 2015, which brings sequels to “The Avengers” and “Star Wars,” will be a record-breaker, the initial three months will be challenging because the first quarter of 2014 was so strong.

“The first quarter is going to have tough comparisons, but overall there are a great mix of films that are both big and small,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak.

The weekend’s other heavy hitter, Oscar hopeful “Selma,” earned roughly $11.2 million, securing a second place finish. The Civil Rights Movement drama expanded from 22 to 2,179 theaters this weekend. Distributed by Paramount Pictures, the film has earned $13.5 million since opening in limited release on Christmas Day.

Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore said that with a CinemaScore of A+ and glowing reviews, “Selma” is well positioned going into the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The film could also get a bump if it enjoys Oscars love when nominations are announced this Thursday.

“There are a combination of factors that set it up for a great run,” said Moore. “This movie has connected, particularly with African-American leaders who want future generations to learn about the great work that Martin Luther King did.”

To that end, Paramount had partnered with business leaders in New York City to distribute 70,000 tickets to students in seventh, eighth and ninth grade. Moore said he hopes the program with extend to other cities.

“Inherent Vice,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s twisty mystery, also saw a hefty expansion, adding more than 600 theaters to its previous count of 16 locations. The film earned $2.9 million over the weekend, pushing its total to $4.5 million after five weeks.

Warner Bros., the studio behind the film, said “Inherent Vice” played well in major cities such as New York and Chicago, but sputtered in smaller markets. The plan for now is to remain at roughly the same number of theaters.

“We never wanted to get caught speeding,” said Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros. distribution executive vice president. “We wanted to give the audience time to find the film.”

In third place, Disney’s “Into the Woods” racked up $9.8 million, bringing its stateside haul to $105.3 million.

Another holiday holdover, “Unbroken,” passed the $100 million mark as well, picking up $8.4 million and a fifth place finish. The Universal Pictures release has earned $101.6 million since debuting three weeks ago.

Horror film “Women in Black 2” plunged 68% in its second weekend in theaters, earning $4.8 million and falling from fourth to eight position. Films in that shocks and scares genre tend to have a steep drop-off and this proved to be no exception.

Among films in the thick of the awards hunt, “Imitation Game” continued to impress, adding $7.6 million to its bounty and capturing sixth place. The biopic about code-breaker Alan Turing has earned more than $40 million since premiering seven weeks ago.

“American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood’s look at Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), put up big numbers in limited release. The war drama snagged $555,000 from just four locations, bringing its gross to $3.2 million. It expands to roughly 3,500 on Friday after Oscar nominations are announced.