To celebrate Traitor’s release, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 Best Spy Films from the past 50 years of top-secret assignments and edge-of-your-seat suspense. Naturally, no list of spy films would be complete without at least one 007 reference (there’s two here), but there are plenty of silver-screen spies and saboteurs that deserve their spot in the rankings just as much as Bond.
So shake up that martini and get ready for a spy film thrill ride!
Director John Woo brings a heavy dose of Hong Kong-style martial arts action to the sequel to the wildly successful first installment of Mission: Impossible franchise. Complicated plotlines and political texturing is traded almost entirely for adrenaline-soaked action sequences as Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, an operative for the top-secret government agency IMF (Impossible Missions Force). He’s on the hunt for fellow agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), who has gone rogue with a sample of a synthetic virus named Chimera that just so happens to be deadly enough to kill everybody, everywhere. Add a love interest, a blinding array of double-crossings and edge-of-your-seat nonstop action, and you’ve got yourself a hell of a spy flick.
Described by many as the fastest, most brutal and best Bond film to date, Quantum of Solace sets a new standard for the classic spy franchise. Picking up just moments after its predecessor, Casino Royale, left off, Bond (Daniel Craig) kills his way from Australia to Italy and South America on a mission of vengeance that pits the super-spy against a powerful businessman. While the ladies remain a consistent element in 007’s world, Craig’s Bond does away with the old cliche catch-phrases and replaces them with pure grit. By the film’s climax, everyone from the CIA to the terrorists and even his agency’s own M are out to get him.
This is Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant, paranoid 1974 film about a CIA surveillance tech genius, played by Gene Hackman. He ends up finding out a lot more than he should, and is tormented by his discovery. The film is a full generation ahead of its time, and the final scene is a snapshot of a dystopian, Orwellian future to come. It’s not your traditional spy film, but a fascinating study in paranoia and fear. Coppola was on a good streak in ’74, too; this was nominated for best picture the same year his other film, Godfather: Part II, won the Oscar (he also won for best director).
In this excellent film that was lost in the nation’s post-9/11 purgatory, Robert Redford plays a veteran CIA operative who, as luck and Hollywood law would have it, gets caught up in all sorts of scariness on his last day on the job. He’s faced with the challenge of saving the life of his longtime friend and field operative, played by Brad Pitt. The story is mostly told in flashback and within the walls of CIA Headquarters at Langley, making for a unique spy thriller with two of Hollywood’s living legends turning in admirable performances.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
What spy film list would be complete without the man who mixed secret agent work with terrible teeth, an ungodly personality and a comic storyline built for mainstream success? Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery stars Mike Myers as Austin Powers, a cryogenically-frozen hipster sex-aholic secret agent from the 60’s who’s thawed out in 1997 when his nemesis, Dr. Evil (also played by Myers), returns to Earth and devises a plan to blow up the world – unless the world comes up with one MILLION dollars ransom. Austin returns to active service, but soon discovers his style and pickup tactics don’t work quite so well 30 years on. The film, which was more a spy-film spoof than anything else, spawned a set of ridiculous sequels, each more absurd than the last. But it made the spy/secret agent genre accessible to kids and grownups alike, and cemented itself as a cultural phenomenon of the 90’s.
The Bourne Trilogy
It’s almost impossible to differentiate the three Bourne films from one another, so we’ll just list them all as one. Adapted from the three Bourne novels by Robert Ludlum, the 2002 / 2004 / 2007 films, starring Matt Damon, is yet another great series of spy movies.
Bourne is an amnesiac spy/secret agent/assassin, trying to piece together his past while either on the run from, chasing after or fighting to the death against operatives affiliated with the Treadstone project, a secret government assassin-brainwashing program. As Bourne slowly puts his past together, he realizes that he might be better off not knowing – and the CIA seems willing to tear the world apart to keep him from finding out.
North by Northwest
Alfred Hitchcock succeeds once again in this 1959 gem that asks the terrifying question: what if everyone around you was suddenly convinced you were a spy? Cary Grant stars as an advertising executive who’s mistaken for someone else and is forced to go on the run. Helped in no small part by Eva Marie Saint, this comic drama pits Grant against a crop-duster and lands him in a fight for his life on Mount Rushmore, bringing a new definition to the term "cliffhanger."
Sean Connery set the standard with the first James Bond movie, defining a role he’d play for the next decade. Dr. No is the closest the Bond franchise has come to a straightforward, no-frills spy thriller, saying a lot for the nearly 50 year-old film series. Setting a trend for Cold War espionage paranoia movies, it’s as dark and gritty as Connery’s Bond ever gets, and the gadgets that reduced 007 an Inspector Gadget-type character in later years are absent. But, of course, there’s a whole lot of sexy to go around.
True Lies (1994)
Heavily influenced by the French film La Totale, this comedy/action/spy thriller is a far-fetched batch of cheese-soaked celluloid that’s nothing but fun. Titanic’s James Cameron wrote and directed the film, about a spy (Arnold Schwarzenegger) posing as a workaholic computer salesman, who’s neglecting his timid wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), a legal secretary. Through a series of ridiculous, Tom Arnold-assisted scenarios, Helen discovers that Harry is a secret agent by night, working for a shadowy group called the Omega Sector. Nuclear warheads, child kidnappings, Tia Carerra’s bitchcraft and Arnold pulling completely impossible heroics in a fighter jet are just par for the course in this funfest that’s campy and easy to digest in a delightfully blissful pre-9/11 world.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Double crossings? Check. Deadly espionage? Check. Secret identities and skin-of-your-teeth escapes? Check. Real-life believability? Check. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, based on John Le Carre’s classic novel, may be nearly 44 years old, but it’s truly a spy movie for the ages. Richard Burton’s British agent uses his own government to free an East German spy he once thought to be his enemy, and he learns that nothing is as it seems in Cold War politics. Burton’s choice of honor over security brings a tragic end to the film that just adds to the film’s gripping sense of real heroism. Possibly the best spy film ever made.