Been a while. Shall we recap? A MacGuffin, lest we forget, is any object or doodad in a story or film that every character wants desperately to get their hands on. It hardly matters what said object is; all we need to know is that everyone wants it, and will do whatever it takes to get it, often at the expense of each other's lives. Done right, the MacGuffin will reveal important truths about the characters (i.e., just how much is this person willing to sacrifice in order to accomplish his/her goals?). Done wrong, or explain it too much, and, well, who cares?
To wit: In Paramount's Mission: Impossible series, Tom Cruise and his Impossible Mission Force are sent to retrieve any number of mysterious artifacts, from a computer file to a vial full of hazardous material, before bad guys can sell it for profit or terror. Characters resolve their differences with bullets or by beating each other to a bloody pulp. In Jaws, the MacGuffin is the shark - the existence of which will test the limits of the three men who set out to stop it. And in Hitchcock's Notorious, uranium stored in champagne bottles forces a spy (Cary Grant) to put the woman he loves (Ingrid Bergman) in harm's way.
Also reminiscent of Hitchcock, and one of the finer uses of the MacGuffin from the past twenty years, is John Frankenheimer's Ronin (1998), a movie that, for research purposes, I was able to appreciate again on DVD last week. It's a deliberate throwback to the stunt-driven spectacles of the 1970s, like Bullitt or The French Connection, and mostly renowned for its pulse-pounding chases through the streets of Paris, Nice and Monaco. (Frankenheimer employed over 300 stunt drivers for his action sequences, all of which were shot live, on camera, without the use of digital effects.) It is also, at its heart, more or less a traditional heist caper, with a ragtag group of mercenaries (Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgård and Sean Bean among them) hired to keep a mysterious briefcase from falling into enemy hands.
Critics complained about its general lack of character development, its laconic tough-guy dialogue, its flat-out refusal to come clean about what's in the case (when pressed about it later, Skarsgård remarked, "[W]e all agreed it was just sandwiches"). I would argue that the film is all about character - i.e., the lengths these men will go to betray each other to the highest bidder. The script by J.D. Zeik and David Mamet (writing under the pseudonym "Richard Weisz" due to a WGA dispute) works overtime not to reveal any of the characters' backstories, as if any of that was beside the point. Instead, they are defined by what they do - in the moment, as dictated by their personal/ professional codes.
And motivating every single action is that menacing, mystery MacGuffin, filled with some unthinkable substance, no doubt, that will ultimately lead to world domination. Or maybe it is just sandwiches. None of which matters to the characters, of course. All they want is to get paid.
The Movie: Ronin (John Frankenheimer, 1998)
The MacGuffin: A mysterious briefcase, filled with who-knows-what and of crucial importance to the highest bidder
Why It's Important: An IRA revolutionary (Natascha McElhone) hires a ragtag group of mercenaries (including Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Sean Bean and Stellan Skarsgård) to steal it back before Irish or Russian terrorists can purchase it first. Much car chasing and double-crossing through the streets of Paris, Nice and Monaco ensues.
Why It's Not: The contents of said case are never revealed, although that doesn't stop any of the characters from asking about it on occasion (to which "I don't know" or "I can't remember" is the usual reply). Instead, director John Frankenheimer (1962's The Manchurian Candidate) uses his MacGuffin as the catalyst for some truly spectacular chase sequences, shot without the help of CGI accoutrements and featuring some of the actual actors behind the wheel.
How It Holds Up: Aces. As an exercise in action thriller logistics, Ronin gets the job done. Frankenheimer's direction is crisp and concise, the screenplay (with a co-author credit from David Mamet) keeps its characters as murky and mysterious as the briefcase itself, and the plot has been pared down to its bare minimum - i.e., no tortured backstories for any of the players, no noble goals to overcome. Just men on a mission, willing to cross anyone and everyone to accomplish it.
Hungry for more MacGuffin With Egg? Check out our previous entries here, here and here. Happy eating!