The backstory of All the Money in the World and how director Ridley Scott replaced disgraced actor Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in a key role after the film was finished would make a hell of a movie on its own. But this story of the 1973 kidnapping of 16-year-old J. Paul Getty III, grandson of the billionaire J. Paul Getty, stands very nicely on its own without all the drama that went into the making of it. You can see why master filmmaker Scott was attracted to the pulsating, suspenseful drama inherent in this material that screenwriter David Scarfa adapted from John Pearson’s book on Getty, Painfully Rich, as it focuses on just the portion of the book that concentrates on this incident.

The younger Getty, played skillfully by Charlie Plummer (no relation to Christopher), was held seven months and even had his ear severed as part of the kidnappers’ ransom demands of $17 million — which they fully, but mistakenly, assumed his oil-rich grandfather would pay. Wrong.  The senior Getty refused, an act that led the boy’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams, who is dynamite) to take matters in her own hands in trying to bring back the son for whom she won full custody in her divorce from drug-addicted J. Paul Getty II, in return for not getting a dime from the family. She is joined in the effort by retired special ops CIA agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), who has the inside track with the elder Getty but knows it is a lost cause trying to get him to pay anything.

The film opens with a black-and-white, La Dolce Vita-esque scene of Rome as Paul is walking down the street at night and suddenly abducted by what turns out to be a splinter group of extremists from the Italian Red Brigade, which regularly kidnaps high-profile targets.  Flashbacks then describe the family dynamic in which Paul grew up, including scenes where J. Paul Getty takes Paul under his wing at a young age to indoctrinate him into his selfish and miserly way of doing business.

The bulk of the film goes back and forth between the attempts to bring him back, and the kidnappers and their captive — including a botched escape attempt as well as the infamous and rather graphic depiction of Paul’s ear being cut off. J. Paul Getty is depicted as a self-absorbed old man who still has the first dollar he ever made, and there is some humor involved there including the placement of an English phone booth in his mansion that requires visitors to pay if they want to make a call. Christopher Plummer nails this performance with a staggering authority and wryly ironic touch, all the more remarkable since he didn’t even have the part until six weeks ago, when Scott went into crisis mode to save the movie after the Spacey scandal hit.

Spacey is a fine actor, but I can’t imagine his Getty could hold a candle to what the 88-year-old Plummer, the consummate pro, achieves here. Although he just won the Oscar a few years ago, another nomination should be in store for this iconic talent who delivers one of his career bests. Williams is transformed as Abigail Getty, a woman not born into this family but one who has to learn to be as manipulative as her former father-in-law in order to get what she needs to save her son. I also liked what Wahlberg did with his role and in other hands it might not have had the same panache. A real standout among the bad guys is Romain Duris as Cinquanta, a captor who takes a sympathetic liking to his prey.

For thinking adults, the one and only Scott (who turned 80 during the reshoots) has made a mustsee thriller that is a true winner this holiday season. Producers are Scott, Dan Friedkin, Bradley Thomas, Kevin J. Walsh, Chris Clark, Quentin Curtis, and Mark Huffam. Using its TriStar label, Sony releases the film December 25; it’s a Christmas miracle that Scott met this date, but one for which lovers of smart and dynamic filmmaking should be grateful.

Do you plan to see All the Money in the World? Let us know what you think.