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Ridley Scott turns last-minute problem into an improv movie legend

Ridley Scott's "All the Money in the World" is utterly amazing. Most people who keep up with movies already know this movie's stunning backstory - that Kevin Spacey's starring role as oil billionaire J. Paul Getty was scrapped when Spacey began to be the target of escalating stories of post-facto sexual abuse from young men, many of whom were underage when the claimed abuse took place.

Spacey, who is 59, was replaced as Getty by the great 80-year-old director with Christopher Plummer who is 88. That alone made the story of this movie unique in movie history. It isn't that no major movie has ever been hit with major late-production tweaking before. The history of that is rich indeed. (See "Casablanca," "The Big Sleep" and "Tootsie.")

But what Scott did at a cost of $10 million was re-shoot all of Spacey's scenes in a movie that was slated to be released just a few weeks later in the all-important Christmas outlay. It is certainly rude to be talking so conspicuously about the ages of the two key men involved - 80 and 88 - but it's also impossible to avoid the subject. We're talking the highest velocity filmmaking possible undertaken by men in their 80s.

You have to understand, then, if any octogenarians could do it, it's these two. Plummer has been one of the great living stage actors his whole life. Last minute re-writes and changes are, no doubt, familiar to him.

Scott began his career in England as a director of episodic series television whose shooting schedules were, to put it mildly, compressed. After that, he became a director of some legendary British TV commercials--another TV form where improvisation and maximum production velocity was hardly uncommon.

Despite their advanced ages, then, you couldn't ask for two men better equipped to virtually remake a kidnapping thriller under the gun just weeks before its release.

And now a giddy word from the news: the film is close to terrific for this season. It's impossible to know what Spacey did with the role of J. Paul Getty, but I simply can't imagine any part of it being an improvement on what Plummer is doing here. This is a great performance - powerful, artfully shaped, subtle, and when it concentrates on the fact that Getty's own health would soon be failing, walloping in its impact from an 88-year-old actor.

The story is based on the early 1970s kidnapping of Getty's 16-year-old grandson (played by Charlie Plummer, no relation) which resulted in his grandfather's grisly public refusal to pay the $17 million ransom on the simple grounds that he had 14 grandchildren and if he started paying ransoms he'd just wind up with "14 kidnapped grandchildren."

When the billionaire's secretary announces that his grandson has been taken, Getty can't be troubled to lift his eyes off the stock ticker. As his grandson says in the narration "my grandfather wasn't just the richest man in the world, he was the richest man in the history of the world."

Which is, my guess, more than a little debatable but when we're talking about wealth so extreme, who can possibly argue? Anyone who has ever seen the magnificent Getty Museum in Los Angeles knows that the billionaire amassed one of the greatest art collections of the modern era. What this movie will bring home is that, in doing so, Getty was also the kind of man who actually encouraged his grandson's kidnappers to chop off a piece of his ear to prove that they weren't kidding about what they were prepared to do to their victim.

This is one of the best kidnapping thrillers to come out in many years, despite the remarkable fact that much of it was made under the gun. Even with the historical facts well-known, the suspense is considerable.

Chalk that up to Scott and his actors - Plummer, Michelle Williams as the captive boy's mother, Mark Wahlberg as the Getty Oil security chief and Charlie Plummer as the kid.

Who among us could possibly even guess what is "normal" behavior for a man of Getty's wealth? What the movie can't help but do, though, is acquire more than a few dropped jaws at the amount of cold, soulless negotiation Getty was capable of in the struggle to get his grandson back.

The fact that the movie exists in this final version of its cast is remarkable enough in its way. That it's every bit as good as it is is, I think, where the film itself comes close to legend.

"All the Money In the World"

Three and a half out of four stars

Christopher Plummer, Michelle Williams, Timothy Hutton and Mark Wahlberg in Ridley Scott's hastily re-shot thriller about the early 1970s kidnapping of J. Paul Getty's grandson. 132 minutes. Rated R for language, violence, brief drugs and a gruesome scene of bodily mutilation.


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