They say character is destiny, but they're not always right. Just look at actor and former bad boy Mark Wahlberg, 40.

Wahlberg grew up Irish American in the hardscrabble -- and heavily Irish -- Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. Back then he wasn't what you call a poster boy for traditional values.

In fact, by any yardstick, he was a major piece of work. By the age of 13 he was addicted to cocaine and by 15 he was throwing stones at black kids. At 16 he approached a middle aged Asian man in the street, knocking him unconscious with a wooden stick.

He later attacked another Asian man leaving him permanently blind in one eye. He then made a separate racist attack on a security guard. For his trouble he was sentenced to two years in jail, serving 45 days.

But his losing streak still wasn't over. By the age of 21 he fractured a neighbor’s jaw in an unprovoked attack.


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That level of complete contempt for the welfare of other people is probably difficult to move beyond, but Wahlberg did. It wasn't, he admits himself, that he didn't know the difference between right and wrong -- in those days he just simply didn't care.

Nowadays he credits his parish priest Father James Flavin for providing him with the guidance to turn his life around. In the years since he's become an ardent Catholic who reportedly attends daily Mass. There is no believer more impassioned than a convert, they say.

But it's because of his tough as nails blue-collar background that Wahlberg is so believable in roles that see him return to the working class roots he actually sprang from.

In Contraband, which opens on Friday, he plays a former smuggler who is forced to make one last glory run to protect his family and pay off a dangerous drug debt. Although the set-up feels hugely formulaic, it's a credit to Wahlberg's acting skills that he makes much of what happens next look utterly convincing. 

Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a former criminal mastermind who is now a devoted husband raising two boys with his gorgeous wife (Kate Beckinsale). But everything he has built up is suddenly threatened when his young brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) botches a drug deal. That leaves Chris as the only one with the skills to raise the kind of money his brother-in-law lost.

It's the kind of plan that looks good on paper, but of course it all starts to fall apart almost as soon as Chris commits to it. Shocking complications ensue, quickly putting Chris in way over his head, and making this film an at times unlikely star vehicle for a Hollywood A-Lister, which means Wahlberg deserves credit for committing to such startlingly dark material.

Contraband is based on Reykjavik-Rotterdam, a tense and critically celebrated 2008 thriller that provides the new film's story line. But instead of its original setting of Iceland, the newly re-imagined Contraband is set in Louisiana and Panama, and it has a authentic and gritty realism that is increasingly threatened by the superhero antics of its leading man.

Where Contraband eventually runs into trouble is predictable -- in that steep gulf between the criminal underworld and Hollywood's near religious belief in happy endings.

Which is not to say that Contraband isn't worth your time. On the contrary, the cinematography alone is worth the admission price.

Director Baltasar Kormakur knows every frame of this criminal alternate universe like he was born and raised in it.  Kormakur also knows how to create dread and suspense and how to propel a film forward, pulling a terrific performance out of Wahlberg, who has been on a bit of a creative roll lately (his recent turns in The Fighter and The Departed have been equally fantastic).

But Contraband is a big budget thriller, not a mature adult drama, and Wahlberg and Kormakur have set out to entertain and create a white-knuckle thrill ride. The problem is in the process they have created a film that -- even though you may not see some of the shocking twists that lie ahead -- will still feel as familiar as a pair of old slippers.


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Although Contraband starts out as a promising thriller, it very quickly turns into a big, unconvincing adventure tale for overgrown boys, even if they remain strong and mostly silent overgrown boys.

Partly it's the stale setup.  As Wahlberg's betrayal by an old friend becomes more and more clear, the film becomes more about that shocking betrayal and less about the wife and family he's trying desperately to protect.

It's a long established genre in Hollywood, this kind of male appendage waving contest between two evenly matched bantams which only one can win, as is the yawningly predictable outcome.

That formula means that Beckinsale doesn't have much to do with her screen time other than be threatened by violent thugs and fret about her family's safety. Years ago she might have been tied to a rail track, now in 2012 she plays a young mother who exists only to be under threat. It’s progress of a sort, I suppose.

Not a lot of people know this, but Wahlberg was once approached by director Ang Lee to read for a potential lead in the critical smash Brokeback Mountain. Wahlberg, who had previously played a porn star in Boogie Nights, nonetheless was uncomfortable with the material and reportedly turned it down on the advice of his parish priest.

Which is ironic because in Contraband all the real drama plays out between the two men (again in exactly that kind of appendage comparing fashion that films this formulaic usually do). For that reason poor Beckinsale has to take a back seat to another utterly gorgeous blond competing for Wahlberg's undivided attention, who in this case is played by up and comer Ben Foster.

We get an early tip off that Foster might spell trouble when Wahlberg’s character describes his bachelor pad as "birdcage." That's Hollywood code for gay, which is often Hollywood code for villain.

Although it would be wrong to give a major plot point away, it’s not cheating to say that when the writers have taken that kind of trouble to mark a character you better, as they say, watch your back.

Where Contraband ultimately falls down is in its refusal to let a thing like multiple homicides or un-survivable 20 man shoot-outs get in the way of the film’s black leather jacket wearing hero.

Although everyone around him is riddled like Swiss cheese by rapid machine gun fire, somehow Wahlberg's character keeps bouncing back, completely unscathed.

But it's Beckinsale's doormat character, who is not much more than a damsel in distress, that looks so lamentably out of date in 2012.

She's attacked, assaulted and left for dead in a film that can't seem to see her plight as anything more than the justification for all the macho mayhem -- and let’s face it, the undeniable chemistry -- that erupts between the film’s two leading men.

Trailer for "Contraband":