By John Young
Updated January 28, 2012 at 07:48 PM EST
THE GREY Liam Neeson
Credit: Open Road Films

Liam Neeson’s late-career transformation into an action star continued as the 59-year-old actor’s latest thriller, The Grey, took a bite out of the box office with $6.5 million on Friday.

That places the R-rated man-versus-wolves movie on pace for an $18 million weekend. While that figure falls a bit short of other recent Neeson thrillers, such as Taken (opened to $24.7 million) and Unknown ($21.9 million), it’s still a solid start for The Grey and its young distributor, Open Road Films. This is only the second release from the AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas-financed Open Road, which paid just $5 million to acquire the $34 million film. Looks like a wise purchase.

The tough movie received a “B-” rating from CinemaScore audiences. Of note is the fact that 67 percent of CinemaScore’s graders listed Neeson as the reason they bought a ticket, confirming the actor’s appeal as an action leading man.

The weekend’s two other new movies, One for the Money and Man on a Ledge, were both promoted with $6 ticket offers through the coupon sites Groupon and LivingSocial, respectively. The promotion may have given a lift to the action comedy One for the Money, which earned $4.1 million on Friday. The PG-13 movie, starring Katherine Heigl as a bail-enforcement agent, should finish the weekend with about $11 million. That’s slightly better than expected, but will still represent Heigl’s worst opening since breaking out in 2007’s Knocked Up. The film attracted an audience that was 75 percent female, and CinemaScore participants handed it a “B-” grade.

The PG-13 thriller Man on a Ledge, starring Avatar‘s Sam Worthington, brought in only $2.5 million on Friday. That sets the $42 million flick up for a $7 million weekend, and suggests that Worthington cannot yet open a movie without the assistance of big-budget special effects. According to CinemaScore, only 17 percent of audiences listed Worthington as their reason for buying a ticket. The film received an overall “B+” rating from the market-research firm’s participants.

Among holdovers, Underworld: Awakening dropped 63 percent for $3.4 million on Friday. The fourth entry in the supernatural action series is on pace for an $11 million weekend. The WWII action film Red Tails fell 53 percent for $2.8 million, and should count on a $10 million weekend.

A number of Best Picture contenders expanded this weekend to take advantage of their recent Oscar nominations. The Descendants, which increased its theater count from 560 to 2,001, soared 166 percent for $1.7 million. Hugo rose 149 percent for $490,000. And front-runner The Artist jumped a milder 35 percent for $870,000. Also, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which picked up a surprise Best Picture nod, slipped 37 percent for $2 million — it didn’t add any theaters since it already expanded wide last weekend. Check back here on Sunday for the complete box office report.

1. The Grey — $6.5 mil

2. One for the Money — $4.1 mil

3. Underworld: Awakening — $3.4 mil

4. Red Tails — $2.8 mil

5. Man on a Ledge — $2.5 mil