We all love a great spy movie – after all it seems that any decent spy manages to spawn a franchise with multiple box office hit installments. But it is fair to say because of this it is a saturated market with more spies than you can shake a tranquilizer gun at. And with the upcoming release of Mission Impossible: Fallout– which has us all excited for some high-octane spy action – we thought we’d have a look at the crème de la crème of cinematic spies…
5. George Smiley – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Originally a 1974 novel by John le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a must-read in spy literature. And if reading isn’t your thing don’t worry, as central spy George Smiley has been adapted into TV, Radio and of course film. Most notably, the academy award-winning 2011 film starring Gary Oldman portrayed Smiley at his best and proves why he certainly deserves his place on this list.
Far from the usual agents we see dominating the screens of most Hollywood spy films, Smiley is a refreshingly different character. Recently retired, aging and engagingly introspective – Smiley is the kind of spy who feels authentic. After all, much as we’d like to believe espionage is all about riding flaming helicopters and a big red button poised to destroy the world – Smiley’s character delivers the alternate, and more plausible perspective – that being a spy is actually pretty exhausting.
Negotiating his way through the complex world of intelligence against the backdrop of the Cold War, Smiley is a spy of subtlety and solves the mysteries within mysteries with quiet and discerning brilliance. In a world where most spy movies open with an explosive chase scene, Smiley doesn’t even say a word until 18 minutes into the feature (‘I’m Retired’?). Yes, what makes Smiley so special is that in any other spy film he would not be special at all. Yet his refreshingly weary outlook and quintessentially British style and approach make him all the more memorable.
4. Austin Powers – The Austin Powers Series (1997-2002)
Speaking of quiet and discerning brilliance, the legendary comedy-spy Austin Powers from the trio of Austin Powers films will provide you with…none of the above. A parody of some of the most iconic spy films, Austin himself is as much a critical look on the spy genre as he is – well – an espionage car crash.
Cryogenically frozen from the 60s, Austin has been resurrected in the 90s in order to help save the world. And whilst it is perhaps not always intentional – he always seems to just about manage it. Along the way, Mike Myers hilarious interpretation of the character, catchy soundtrack and extraordinary cast (maybe show beyonce, liz hurley etc here) make Powers’ journey one hell of a ride.
But what elevates Austin Powers from a simple comedy spy film is the clever way in which he is also an ironic take on the classic British spy. Most notably, just like many other spies, women seem to find Austin irresistible despite his less-than-appealing teeth and appauling dad jokes. What is more, the three franchises similar plot lines – always seemingly ending with Dr Evil vowing revenge before another failed attempt, highlight the repetitive nature of many spy franchises. But if you don’t want to read into the subtext of Austin Powers, he is simply a hilarious and unique character that undoubtedly presents one of the best comedic spies in cinematic history.
3. Harry Palmer – The Ipcress File (1965)
After the release of the first few James Bond films, The Ipcress File arrived as the mellow, cynical and darker younger brother of its glossy predecessors. In stark contrast to Bond’s exotic, jet-setting lifestyle – Harry Palmer is a gritty, working-class Londoner making his way through uninspiring gloomy landscapes. Yes, The Ipcress File gave us a new form of spy movie, stripping back the glamour and shine and replacing it with brutality and noise.
Despite this, The Ipcress File won a BAFTA for The Best British Film in 1966 and it was clear a very different breed of spy was on the rise. Much like Smiley, Palmer represents a raw and perhaps more realistic version of espionage – that is until the slightly bizarre brainwashing begins. However, unlike Smiley – there is nothing quiet and discerning about Palmer. And whilst there hasn’t been the long and lucrative franchise for Palmer as there has been for Bond, it is easy to see how this character influenced the less chiseled and polished, anti-spy we see in films today. Or perhaps it is just a coincidence that Eggsy’s name is Harry and Michael Caine also stars in Kingsman.
2. Ethan Hunt – The Mission Impossible Series (1996-2018)
With the latest installment of Mission Impossible nearly upon us, we were never going to forget Tom Cruise’s legendary character Ethan Hunt on this list. Our only American addition (we promise we aren’t biased), Hunt’s world of espionage is as dynamic and explosive as they come in cinema. Indeed, he has been avoiding explosions and dodging bullets on our screens to one of the world’s most recognizable theme tunes since 1996 and it appears nothing will ever stop Hunt, or indeed Tom Cruise.
Unlike some of the other spies on this list, nothing about Hunt is understated or subdued. In all of the Mission Impossible installments, we see Hunt take on another (impossible) mission and perform inconceivable physical feats in order to save the world from anything from a deadly virus to global nuclear war. A true all-american hero, Hunt isn’t the most emotionally complex character but has incredible deductive skills, a near photographic memory, a healthy dose of charm and proves time and time again he is completely fearless. He speaks at least four languages fluently, is a master of disguise and seems to have at least three or four different types of martial arts under his belt.
In short, whilst he didn’t quite make number one on our Top Movie spies list, Ethan Hunt would be our number one pick in the zombie apocalypse.
1. James Bond – The James Bond Series (1962-2015)
We’ve looked at some interesting variations on spies in this list but, as they say, you can’t beat an original. The name James Bond is now synonymous with spy films and is undoubtedly the longest-running, most successful and iconic spy franchise in cinematic history.
Whether he is being played by Sean Connery back in the 60s or as Daniel Craig in the present day (and every decade in-between), James Bond has always been an instantly recognisable character due to his charm, class and style. Always in exotic locations, visiting the swankiest establishments and never far from danger – something about Bond’s adventures never seems to fail to wow audiences.
Bond has been solidified in the public perception as a reliable hero who will stop at nothing to fulfil his mission, serve justice and protect the world – although he may become a little distracted at times (LADIES). And yet, whilst these are some consistent Bond traits, it is the way Bond has evolved and changed over the years that make this spy timeless.
With some of the more recent installments such as Casino Royale and Skyfall fleshing out Bond’s character, he is becoming a complex, very human individual. Orphaned at a young age and struggling to build lasting relationships, Bond is haunted by a past where he loses those he loves. So whilst he may have been on the scene for a while, it seems with every installment we learn more about James Bond himself proving he is not only an iconic spy of the past but will continue to redefine the cinematic spy of the future.
So how did we do? Agree with our choices? Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to comment below.