Throughout the history of movies, there have been plenty of great thrillers and action movies about spies. In a few cases, though, the spies themselves have become the center of attention. A great movie spy can come in many different forms: Some of them act and behave a great deal like spies actually act, whereas others live in worlds of suave suits and high-speed car chases.
Whichever world they come from, though, these spies have compelled us on screen for decades, and often left us hungry for another adventure featuring them.
The Kingsman franchise was exciting from the moment it began, and Taron Egerton’s Eggsy has been anchoring it from minute one. Although it may be the most absurd franchise on this list, Kingsman, and especially the first installment, gives us a real chance to get to know Eggsy, and see him become the spy that he ultimately is.
Egerton, who would later showcase stellar work in the Elton John biopic Rocketman and the Apple TV+ show Black Bird, is excellent in the role, totally captivating and more than capable of performing the array of stunts required, and he and Eggsy are the reason this franchise works.
One of the more famous spies in the history of literature got a rock-solid adaptation when Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy hit theaters in 2011. Another movie that’s light on action but heavy on intrigue, this film follows Smiley as he attempts to weed out the foreign operative working under him.
Although it’s mostly just conversations in rooms, Tinker Tailor helps you follow every twist and turn, and Gary Oldman’s Smiley is a taciturn, witty, urbane agent who feels much closer to what spies are actually like than most of the people above him on this list.
The oldest movie on this list features a kind of spycraft that is almost completely lacking any action. Notorious follows the daughter of a German war criminal named Alicia Huberman who is recruited by an American to ingratiate herself with a Nazi hiding out in Brazil.
Notorious is a love story about the relationship between Alicia and her handler, but it’s also a thrilling game of cat and mouse as she tries desperately to gather incriminating information on her mark without being caught herself. Thanks to director Alfred Hitchcock, Notorious feels just as modern today as it did in the 1940s.
It took more than a decade for Marvel to give Natasha Romanoff her own movie, but even before she got her own movie, she was already a compelling character. Scarlett Johansson is one of the great actresses of her generation, and she gave Natasha everything she had.
From her work as part of a broader ensemble in the early Avengers films to her standout role in the Marvel film Avengers: Endgame, Nat has been a loyal friend, a fierce fighter, and someone who is almost totally unphased by the absolutely wacky world that she often finds herself in.
Bourne doesn’t have the kind of history of the top two, but his impact is undeniable. This franchise ensured that Matt Damon would be a movie star for decades to come, and also gave us three truly excellent installments before things started to fall off.
Bourne’s sheer lethality is what helped vault him up this list, along with the fact that the action style pioneered in these films ultimately influenced what action looked like for years to come. Jason Bourne doesn’t have the kind of complex character arcs of the top two, but he’s fascinating in part because he’s such a blank slate.
The first Mission: Impossible movie wasn’t designed as a franchise starter, but that’s exactly what it became. Now, almost 30 years after that first installment hit theaters, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is one of the definitive spies in movie history, and also Cruise’s primary vehicle for showing off whatever dangerous stunts he can think up.
Few franchises have continued to up the ante so well that people are genuinely looking forward to the seventh installment, and Hunt has been central to that as a spy who refuses to sacrifice his team, even when it might be for the greater good.
Undoubtedly the greatest spy in cinema history, James Bond is cool, elegant, and a complete badass. Some elements of the Bond character might feel outdated in the 21st century (specifically his relationships with women), but it’s hard to deny that James Bond has been the spy that all other spies have been compared against over the 60 years since Sean Connery first took on the role.
Bond is such an iconic character that it’s a question of when, not if, a new Bond will be announced. It’s a cinematic institution with almost unparalleled history, and that history is more than enough for Bond to take the top spot