"Selma," meanwhile, propelled by awards buzz and positive word of mouth including promotion from co-star and producer Oprah Winfrey, leaped to second place with $11.2 million following its nationwide expansion.
The franchise, now in perhaps its final installment, has been fruitful at the box office, in large part because of Neeson's appeal as a vigilante.
By comparison, "Taken 2" opened to $50 million in October 2012. That was double what the original "Taken" made in 2009, when its $24.7-million start surprised the industry on the historically slow Super Bowl weekend. The franchise has grossed more than $600 million worldwide on combined budgets of $70 million.
The Paramount Pictures-distributed film, which cost about $20 million to make, has pulled in $13.5 million since its limited release on Christmas Day.
An estimated 43% of "Selma" moviegoers nationwide were African American, and 40% were white. Sixty-one percent were female.
The film earned an A-plus on CinemaScore and a 98% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It nabbed four Golden Globes nominations and is considered a major Oscar contender.
Holiday holdover "Into the Woods" rounded out the top three and crossed the $100-million mark at the domestic box office. It added about $9.8 million this weekend, raising its total domestic haul to $105.3 million.
Directed by Rob Marshall, Disney's musical drama is a modern twist on several fairy tales and stars Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep, Chris Pine and Johnny Depp.
New Line and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" fell to fourth after holding the top spot for three weeks in a row. Director Peter Jackson's film, based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien, added $9.4 million over the weekend. Its domestic haul to date is about $236.5 million.
In fifth place, Universal Pictures' "Unbroken" also crossed the $100-million mark. The Angelina Jolie-directed film added about $8.4 million, raising its total to $101.6 million.