Ridley Scott’s kidnap drama sees Christopher Plummer in a role originally played by Kevin Spacey. It’s an improvement in an otherwise underwhelming film, writes Nicholas Barber.

Ridley Scott’s true-life kidnap drama, All the Money in the World, is destined to go down in cinema history as the film that Kevin Spacey was in, and then wasn’t in. Spacey had finished shooting his role as John Paul Getty, the filthy-rich US oil tycoon, when he was accused of sexual harassment and assault. Just six weeks before the film was due to be released, Scott announced that it wouldn’t be delayed: he would simply reshoot all of Spacey’s scenes with Christopher Plummer playing Getty instead.

Spacey’s prosthetic make-up in the original trailer made him resemble an evil Muppet

Amazingly, there’s no sign of last-minute tinkering. Getty is a major character who is seen in numerous settings and alongside numerous other characters, but his scenes never seem rushed or compromised. On the contrary, they’re the best, most assured parts of an otherwise proficient but underwhelming film. I assume we’ll get to see the equivalent Spacey scenes one day, but it’s hard to believe that they’ll be better than Plummer’s.

For one thing, Getty’s old age is a key facet of his character, and the 88-year-old Plummer looks the part, whereas Spacey’s prosthetic make-up in the original trailer made him resemble an evil Muppet. For another thing, Spacey specialises in obviously slimy, Mephistophelian villains, whereas Plummer gives Getty an avuncular twinkle and a hint of vulnerability. Spacey’s characters tend to know that they’re monsters; Plummer’s Getty would be offended by the very idea.

The rest of the film isn’t as compelling as he is, though. At the start of All the Money in the World, Getty’s long-haired 16-year-old grandson, Paul (Charlie Plummer - no relation to Christopher), is enjoying la dolce vita in Rome in 1973 when he is grabbed by some strangers in balaclavas, thrown into the back of a camper van, and driven away to a shack in the southern Italian countryside. The ragtag kidnappers, led by Cinquanta (Romain Duris), demand a $17 million (£12.5 million) ransom.

Paul’s father, John Paul Getty Jr (Andrew Buchan), is no help to anyone: he’s in a drugged-up stupor in Marrakech. The boy’s mother, Abigail (Michelle Williams), who lives in Rome, is desperate for the ransom to be paid, but she has had no contact with the Gettys since she divorced John Jr, and she has no access to the family’s fortune. So that leaves Getty himself - and he refuses to pay a penny of the ransom. After all, he chuckles to a crowd of reporters, if he rewards the extortionists who have abducted one of his 14 grandchildren, they might be encouraged to abduct the others. But does he really have his relatives’ best interests at heart, or is he just insanely mean? Plummer recently played Ebeneezer Scrooge in The Man Who Invented Christmas, and Scrooge would have approved of Getty’s decision to install a phone booth in his Surrey stately home so that he doesn’t have to shell out for his visitors’ phone calls.

As miserly as he is, however, he assigns one of his most trusted negotiators, Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), to bring Paul home - the cue, you might think, for some kick-ass action. Fletcher is a former CIA agent, after all, and he is played by a movie star who embodies working-class brawn-over-brain bravery and toughness. He even has “Chase” in his name. He may be wearing a Clark Kent-style waistcoat and glasses, but it’s safe to assume that Cinquanta is about to receive the full Liam Neeson treatment. 

If only. After a gripping scene-setting section that flits confidently between different decades and different continents, All the Money in the World slows down to a sauntering pace. Months drift by, and while Scott keeps cutting back and forth between Gettys of various generations, nothing actually happens. Out in the sticks, Cinquanta and his gang are getting bored of waiting around with Paul. And in Rome and England, the Gettys don’t appear to be in any hurry to get him back.

A film that concentrated on Getty, with Plummer in the lead role, might well have been better than All the Money in the World

The largely useless Fletcher lounges in Abigail’s flat, playing with her younger children; in one scene, Wahlberg resorts to doing some high-speed press-ups, as if to reassert his macho credentials. Williams is terrific at conveying fierce determination while maintaining her character’s upper-crust reserve, but it’s not entirely clear what Abigail is doing to aid her son. It’s weeks before she suddenly has the genius idea of selling a family heirloom in order to raise some cash herself, and this sluggishness saps the film of the tension that any hostage story needs. Abigail may not have all the money in the world, but she behaves as if she has all the time.

A climactic hide-and-seek sequence in an Italian hill town attempts to add some thrills - and it might have succeeded, if it hadn’t been so blatantly fictional - but Ridley’s film holds the attention only when it returns to Getty’s cavernous mansion. A grumpy, paranoid loner reminiscent of Charles Foster Kane, with a dash of Mr Burns from The Simpsons, Getty is someone who will spend a seven-figure sum on a small Renaissance painting of disputed provenance, but who will wash his own underwear in a hotel bathroom to save on laundry fees. He raises intriguing questions about the mentality of the super-rich, and a film that concentrated on him, with Plummer in the lead role, might well have been better than All the Money in the World. Better still, how about a behind-the-scenes drama detailing why Spacey was replaced, and how Scott managed to do the reshoots in record time? That would be worth shelling out for.


If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.