Credit: Kimberley French

Liam Neeson, fighter of wolves, may be the closest thing the box office has to an alpha male. The 59-year-old actor’s latest thriller, The Grey, debuted in first place with a better-than-expected $20 million, according to studio estimates.

That places the R-rated film just below the openings of Neeson’s Taken ($24.7 million) and Unknown ($21.9 million). It also represents a major win for Open Road Films, the new distributor formed by AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas. Although The Grey cost a reported $34 million to produce, Open Road acquired the wilderness-survival movie for just $5 million.

The well-reviewed but admittedly harsh film earned a middling “B-” rating from CinemaScore audiences. According to the market-research firm, 71 percent of the audience was at least 25 years old. Of particular interest, 67 percent of moviegoers listed Neeson as the reason they purchased a ticket to The Grey, confirming the actor’s drawing power. Neeson is now taking suggestions on what animals he should confront next. My vote: Alvin and the Chipmunks.

The weekend’s two other new movies, One for the Money and Man on a Ledge, witnessed less impressive debuts. Both films were promoted with $6 ticket offers through online coupon sites (Groupon for One for the Money and LivingSocial for Man on a Ledge). Also, with Lionsgate’s recent acquisition of Summit Entertainment, the studio was essentially competing against itself — One for the Money is a Lionsgate release, while Man on a Ledge is from Summit.

One for the Money, a PG-13 action comedy starring Katherine Heigl as a bail-enforcement agent, landed in third place with $11.8 million. That’s slightly better than what many industry experts predicted, but still represents Heigl’s worst opening since breaking out in 2007’s Knocked Up. There’s a noticeable downward trajectory to the star’s recent box-office performance, with each of her last four films opening to a smaller amount than the movie before it. One for the Money drew an audience that was 75 percent female, and CinemaScore participants gave it a “B-” grade.

Man on a Ledge underwhelmed with $8.3 million — enough for fifth place. The PG-13 thriller stars Avatar‘s Sam Worthington, who has yet to prove he can open a film without being surrounded by big-budget special effects. According to CinemaScore, only 17 percent of audiences listed Worthington as their reason for buying a ticket. If there’s a bright spot for Ledge, it’s that the movie received a “B+” rating from CinemaScore audiences.

Among holdovers, Underworld: Awakening fell 51 percent for $12.5 million. That’s actually the best second-weekend hold for any Underworld movie. After 10 days, Awakening has grossed an estimated $45.1 million — more than any of its predecessors had in the same time frame. The World War II action film Red Tails dropped 45 percent for $10.4 million, bringing its two-week total to $33.8 million.

Also, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol crossed $200 million on Friday. After 45 days in theaters, Ghost Protocol has earned $202.6 million and is neck and neck with Mission: Impossible II, which collected $201.7 million in the same period. It’ll be a nail-biter as Ghost Protocol attempts to pass Mission: Impossible II‘s final tally of $215.4 million to become the franchise’s top earner.

In limited release, Albert Nobbs, starring Oscar-nominated Glenn Close and Janet McTeer, debuted to a mediocre $770,000 from 245 theaters. A number of Best Picture nominees expanded this weekend to take advantage of their recent nominations. The Descendants, which increased its theater count from 560 to 2,001, jumped 176 percent to pull in $6.6 million. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo rose 143 percent for $2.3 million. And the front-runner The Artist earned $3.3 million, pushing its cumulative total to $16.7 million.

1. The Grey — $20.0 mil

2. Underworld: Awakening — $12.5 mil

3. One for the Money — $11.8 mil

4. Red Tails — $10.4 mil

5. Man on a Ledge — $8.3 mil