Mark Wahlberg, Giovanni Ribisi, ...
Credit: Patti Perret

We’re counting on Gaston Wahlberg to lead the way! In a weekend that saw both the Mark Wahlberg thriller Contraband and Disney’s 3-D re-release of Beauty and the Beast perform better than expected, it was the former that crossed the finish line in first place.

The R-rated Contraband, which stars Wahlberg as a former smuggler trying to protect his brother-in-law from a drug lord, earned an estimated $24.1 million over the standard three-day weekend, and looks to finish the four-day holiday weekend with about $28 million. That’s a solid start for the $25 million movie, a remake of the 2008 Icelandic thriller Reykjavík-Rotterdam. It also represents Wahlberg’s strongest solo debut since 2008’s The Happening. (What? No!)

Contraband confirmed Wahlberg’s ability to open a movie, as 69 percent of CinemaScore’s participants listed the actor as their reason for buying a ticket. It received an overall “A-” from the tracking service’s graders, indicating positive word of mouth. But the movie will have to contend with a number of action films in the coming weeks, including Haywire, Underworld: Awakening, and The Grey.

In second was Beauty and the Beast 3D with $18.5 million for the three-day frame — the largest January opening for an animated film (topping 2006’s Hoodwinked). Disney spent less than $10 million converting the 1991 classic to 3-D, so this kind of opening more than justifies the studio’s decision to re-release the musical. It also bodes well for Disney’s future 3-D re-releases: Finding Nemo in September, and Monsters, Inc. and The Little Mermaid in 2013. Beast should finish the four-day weekend with around $25 million.

However, despite Beast‘s commendable performance, it’s worth pointing out that it fell short of last September’s The Lion King 3D, which debuted to $30.2 million. That could be the result of several factors. For one, King was a much bigger hit in its original release, earning $312.9 million versus Beast‘s $145.9 million. Second, Beast has been out on 3-D Blu-ray since October, whereas King didn’t come out on Blu-ray until after it returned to theaters. And Beast had a harder time attracting the interest of boys. According to Disney, just 31 percent of Beast 3D‘s audience was male — compared to 44 percent for Lion King 3D.

The weekend’s third new release, the gospel-singing dramedy Joyful Noise, drew a smaller congregation with $11.3 million over the three-day frame. The $25 million movie, starring Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton, is on pace for $14 million by Monday night. Those who saw the film loved it, though, as CinemaScore moviegoers handed the picture an “A-” rating. According to the tracking service, 73 percent of the audience was female, and 78 percent was at least 25 years old. A rep for Warner Bros. said the film performed particularly well throughout the South and Midwest.

Among holdovers, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol dropped a mild 42 percent for $11.5 million. On Saturday it surpassed the original Mission: Impossible‘s $181 million gross to become the action franchise’s second-highest grossing film, behind Mission: Impossible II with $215.4 million. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows continued to hold up well, too, slipping just 39 percent for $8.4 million, and pushing its cumulative total to $170 million.

One film that did not hang on well was last week’s winner, The Devil Inside. The R-rated horror flick plummeted 77 percent for $7.9 million. That’s the largest second-weekend drop for a wide release since 2009’s Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience — now there’s a double feature for you! It’s also the third-worst decline on record for a film playing in at least 2,000 theaters, behind 2003’s Gigli and 2009’s Friday the 13th. But don’t feel too bad for The Devil Inside, as it has already consumed $46.2 million on a $1 million budget.

The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, expanded from five to 802 theaters and earned a respectable $5.4 million, which was just enough for 10th place.

1. Contraband — $24.1 mil

2. Beauty and the Beast 3D — $18.5 mil

3. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol — $11.5 mil

4. Joyful Noise — $11.3 mil

5. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows — $8.4 mil