It can be tough to do the MacGuffin justice. Explain it too much, and you risk losing your audience ("What? These people are risking life, love and limb for this stupid thing and it turns out to be a pack of gum? I'm outta here!"). Explain the MacGuffin just enough to peak your audience's interest, and it's, well, Hitchcock-ian.
Paramount's Mission: Impossible series is a prime example of how to cook up a MacGuffin right. They take the same basic setup as the television series (the Tape Scene, the Plan, and Mission Initiation) then add a modern twist, sending IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) after bad guys in possession of increasingly treacherous objects. Each object is given a brief description before we're off and running, barely pausing to take a breath or to ask any questions. This is exactly how it should be.
No matter what you think of the movies themselves, I personally enjoy the way each MacGuffin is pushed to the background while more personal matters occupy the foreground. The first Mission is a straight-forward (some would say overly convoluted) Mystery-Thriller with Action-Adventure elements, in which Cruise, trying to keep an IMF "NOC-List" out of enemy hands, hunts after the traitor who framed him for murder. Its 2000 sequel is more like a James Bond adventure crossed with Hitchcock's Notorious, as Cruise and a rival IMF operative vie for control over a deadly virus – and the affections of the same woman. And M:I-3 sees Cruise on his most personal assignment yet, his life (and his wife!) threatened by a black market dealer looking to sell a mysterious item known only as "The Rabbit's Foot."
These are Action movies first and foremost (a genre usually reserved for brainless, graceless thrills), so it's refreshing to see the series give each MacGuffin its proper attention – which is to say, not very much. Here's hoping Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol continues this time-honored tradition this December.*
(UPDATE: It did. See also below.)
The Movie: Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma,
The MacGuffin: The NOC-List
Why It's Important: If any bad guy were to get his grubby mitts on this thing, he could conceivably reveal the true identities of every government agent in the world. Undercover operations everywhere would go up in smoke. Anarchy would reign. Or said bad guy could sell the information to the highest bidder and accomplish the same. ("NOC," by the way, stands for "non-official cover." Thank you, Wikipedia.)
Why It's Not: Seriously now. You're telling me a covert operation such as the CIA would keep their agent's names and matching aliases on a set of floppy discs for anyone to get to? This is how our government keeps its secrets? If so, I want a recount.
How It Holds Up: Thankfully, the "NOC-List" is the drive of the movie, not the point. Cruise's team is almost completely wiped out while trying to protect it, it turns out the list was a fake designed to expose a mole, Cruise is unjustly exposed as the mole, he recruits a new team to steal the actual NOC-list from CIA Headquarters, Cruise attempts to sell the list so he can expose the actual mole. The action set pieces are just spectacular enough to keep you distracted from the silliness of the plot.
The Movie: Mission: Impossible II (John Woo, 2000)
The MacGuffin: Chimera / Bellerophon
Why It's Important: Developed by Russian bio- chemist Dr. Vladimir Nekhorvich (Rade Serbedzija), Chimera is a deadly pathogen that, if released, will decimate most of the world's population. Nekhorvich also created Chimera's antidote, called Bellerophon, for nefarious purposes. A rogue IMF agent (Dougray Scott) seeks both the virus and its cure for reasons of his own.
Why It's Not: Chimera and Bellerophon take a back seat to the love triangle at play in M:I-2. Cruise recruits Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton) to "gain back the trust" of her one-time lover (Scott) and hopefully recover the product. This in spite of the fact that Cruise has fallen for Nyah himself.
How It Holds Up: That depends on your tolerance for subtext – and director John Woo's over-the-top action flourishes. According to Greek mythology, the Chimera is a demon with the head of a lion and the snake as its tail, and was vanquished by the hero Bellerophon, who pre-dates Hercules. The Chimera and Bellerophon of this second Mission are, in fact, metaphors for Scott and Cruise: one is an agent with opposing allegiances bent on destruction, and the other's a white knight out to stop him. (There's even a jousting contest on motorcycles, in case you miss the point.)
The Movie: Mission: Impossible III (J.J. Abrams,
The MacGuffin: The Rabbit's Foot
Why It's Important: No one really knows what the Rabbit's Foot can do, though it's unmistakably dangerous. IMF technician Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) describes it this way: "I used to have this professor at Oxford, okay? Doctor Wickham, his name was and he was, like, this massive fat guy, you know? Huge, big guy. We used to call him... well, I won't tell you what we used to call him, but he taught biomolecular kinetics and cellular dynamics. And he used to sort of scare the underclassmen with this story about how the world would eventually be eviscerated by technology. You see, it was inevitable that a compound would be created which he referred to as the 'Anti-God.' It was like an accelerated mutator or sort of, you know, like a, an unstoppable force of destructive power, that would just lay waste to everything – to buildings and parks and streets and children and ice cream parlors, you know? So whenever I see, like, a rogue organization willing to spend this amount of money on a mystery tech, I always assume it's the Anti- God. End-of-the-world kinda stuff, you know..."
Why It's Not: Again – no one seems to know what the Rabbit's Foot can actually do. Each character knows it by name, will pay any price to get it, and when we finally see it, there's a bio-hazard symbol printed on the label, so you know that can't be good. But Ethan Hunt couldn't care less about its actual purpose – he simply needs to swap it for his kidnapped wife (Michelle Monaghan).
How It Holds Up: Probably the most effective of all M:I MacGuffins – its origins are terrifically, tantalizingly cryptic, though enough explanation is given to make the Rabbit's Foot a viable threat. (Even when Cruise gets up the nerve to ask what it is, all he gets from boss Laurence Fishburne is a wink and a smile.)
(Brad Bird, 2011)
The MacGuffin: A briefcase containing nuclear missile launch codes
Why It's Important: Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), a Swedish-born Russian terrorist and ex-special forces officer, plans to start a nuclear war in order to restore balance to the face of the earth. To do this, he steals a nuclear launch-control device from inside the Kremlin and frames the IMF for the job. It is then up to Ethan Hunt and his team of "disavowed" agents to keep Hendricks from completing his mission.
Why It's Not: As with any Impossible Mission adventure, the MacGuffin is merely the lynchpin for a series of spectacular stunts and set pieces, at which Ghost Protocol excels.
How It Holds Up: Director Brad Bird, the animation maestro behind The Iron Giant, Ratatouille and The Incredibles, proves himself a master of live-action mayhem as well, with dizzying suspense sequences that rival anything since Hitchcock or Spielberg. (And, yes, that really is Tom Cruise scaling Dubai's Burj Khalifa - the tallest building in the world.) Plus, nothing beats the sight of Mr. Hunt, beaten and battered on that parking garage floor, pounding his fist and shouting triumphantly (to no one but himself), "Mission... ACCOMPLISHED!"