Spies, assassins, surveillance, gadgets, moles, villains, henchmen, and ever-present danger? The best espionage movies have it all!
And the best thing about spy thrillers is that they come in all forms—from edge-of-your-seat action flicks to dead-serious slow-burn dramas, from silly comedy spoofs to nail-biting heart-thumpers.
Here are our picks for the best spy movies and espionage thrillers to satisfy your itch for all things clandestine.
20. Enemy of the State (1998)
Directed by Tony Scott
Starring Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight
Action, Thriller (2h 12m)
Other than Men in Black and possibly Independence Day, Will Smith's best movie could easily be Enemy of the State.
This espionage thriller captures a late-90s flavour of paranoia that involves increasingly invasive government surveillance. It's a well-paced thriller film that represents a specific time and mood in American history.
At the time, people didn't understand—or care to understand—how surveillance technology worked or how it was used by powerful entities, but they knew enough to be suspicious.
19. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Directed by George Clooney
Starring Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, George Clooney
Biography, Comedy, Crime (1h 53m)
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is based on the unverified double life of Chuck Barris, creator of The Dating Game and creator/host of The Gong Show. (The movie was adapted from his autobiography.)
Barris claims he was a covert assassin for the CIA, having killed 33 targets on behalf of the agency. True or not, this is a wild story and a really entertaining movie worth watching.
18. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
Directed by Jay Roach
Starring Mike Myers, Elizabeth Hurley, Michael York
Adventure, Comedy (1h 29m)
There have been all kinds of spy spoof movies over the years, but not one has come close to the genius of International Man of Mystery.
This movie remains as funny today as it ever was, and represents the pinnacle of both the spy movie genre and Mike Myers' career. Sadly, the quality dropped with each of its sequels, but even those movies make for a fun watch from time to time.
17. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy
Drama, Mystery, Thriller (2h 7m)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a slow-burning, quiet movie—the kind of film that says just as much in the silences between dialogue as it does in the lines of dialogue themself. The plot reveals itself in the subtext of the many different conversations that unfold.
When you combine this understated approach with the overall melancholy tone and the reserved but excellent performances, you end up with a movie that won't be everyone's cup of tea...
...but if you have some patience and you're willing to give it your undivided attention—and maybe more than one watch—then you'll find there's a lot here to appreciate and enjoy as a true spy movie.
16. Burn After Reading (2008)
Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Starring Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, George Clooney
Comedy, Crime, Drama (1h 36m)
Burn After Reading is easily one of the most nihilistic movies ever made. In the end, nothing means anything and no one really had any idea what was going on the entire time.
In espionage movies, we often encounter themes that involve a fog of lies and misunderstandings, where truth and falsehoods are indeterminable and therefore meaningless. We get a deeper look at that in Burn After Reading.
The Coen brothers have explored these themes in some of their other movies, but the espionage genre provided a perfect playground for them to run amok with Burn After Reading!
15. The Bourne Identity (2002)
Directed by Doug Liman
Starring Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper
Action, Mystery, Thriller (1h 59m)
Jason Bourne is America's greatest answer to England's James Bond. In stark contrast to the English spy, Bourne is serious, nervous, and gritty. He could make a stationery store look like an armory.
Able to use anything at his disposal—like an amnesiac MacGyver who operates on muscle memory—Jason Bourne manages to be his own unique character in a sea of clichéd spies.
The Bourne film series has a strong atmosphere to it, and it all starts with the excellence of The Bourne Identity. While its two sequels are both stellar, the original is downright iconic.
You can really see the influence of the Bourne franchise on the character of James Bond when you look at Daniel Craig's darkened iteration in the Casino Royale reboot.
14. Casino Royale (2006)
Directed by Martin Campbell
Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Judi Dench
Action, Adventure, Thriller (2h 24m)
James Bond is the world's most iconic fictional spy. As of this writing, there are 25 movies in the franchise. As much as I like them—and as fun as they are to watch—many are admittedly not very good.
The quality of Casino Royale not only sets it above the other installments in the franchise, but places it among the best movies of the action genre and the greatest movies of modern cinema.
Goldmember might have done the most in establishing the James Bond character, but Casino Royale perfected Bond and resurrected a franchise that had gone stale with renewed potential.
13. Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Starring Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson
Action, Adventure, Comedy (2h 9m)
Matthew Vaughn just keeps one-upping himself. From Layer Cake (2004) to Kick-Ass (2010) to X-Men: First Class (2011), the man only makes increasingly better movies.
And then, when he made Kingsman: The Secret Service in 2014, everyone collectively lost their minds.
Sure, there's nothing necessarily original about its plot—an underprivileged kid is invited to join the most advanced espionage team in the world—its action sequences are second to none.
Who can forget the church scene to the tune of "Free Bird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd? It's one of the best choreographed fights in action movie history, which is just icing on the cake of superb performances and sharp writing that keeps you hooked.
12. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander
Action, Adventure, Comedy (1h 56m)
Guy Ritchie returned to top form when he directed The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a thrilling espionage film starring Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, and Alicia Vikander.
The plot features two spies from opposing nations—the USA and the Soviet Union—trying to solve a case together. What happens if they fail? Well, nothing more than the end of the world.
We watch as their conflicting ideologies don't just cause external issues for their mission, but lead to several hilarious scenarios that make this one as memorable as it gets.
11. Tenet (2020)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki
Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller (2h 30m)
Christopher Nolan bravely decided to release Tenet in theaters while the COVID-19 pandemic still raged, making it one of the first movies to re-open cinemas around the world.
Apart from the excitement of being in a theater again, Tenet itself was immensely cinematic, giving us an excellent espionage thriller wrapped up in Nolan's trademark sci-fi trappings.
In Tenet, a man—known to us as Protagonist—is tasked with finding the answer to a time-bending, reality-morphing device that threatens to destroy the world if it falls into the wrong hands.
Though complex and bordering on incomprehensible, Tenet improves with one or two rewatches (with the subtitles on!), and the result is a compelling story in an original gimmick.
10. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Starring Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames
Action, Adventure, Thriller (2h 27m)
If you ask me, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the best entry in the decades-long Mission: Impossible spy-action franchise.
With Tom Cruise growing more and more intense with each film—his madman stunts just get bigger and badder—the set pieces and action sequences just never let up.
Fun fact: Tom Cruise broke his ankle while doing his own stunts for Mission: Impossible – Fallout.
Cruise's willingness to take on death-defying stunts is just one element that sets apart the Mission: Impossible movies. The bathroom brawl? The skydive from the airplane? The helicopter duel? It's all thrilling on a whole new level.
If you're a fan of spy movies and action movies but haven't watched any of these films yet, what are you waiting for? This franchise was made just for people like you!
9. Get Smart (2008)
Directed by Peter Segal
Starring Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Alan Arkin
Action, Adventure, Comedy (1h 50m)
Steve Carrell was well on his way to becoming America's leading funny man when he starred in The Office, and his cinematic adventures in films like Get Smart helped to cement that claim.
Maxwell Smart is an analyst who demonstrates next-level intelligence and critical thinking skills. But making use of those traits while out in the field? Not as easy as you might think.
Good-natured but unfortunately possessing two left feet, the bumbling Maxwell Smart will have to do his very best if he's to prevent a nuclear bomb from exploding.
8. True Lies (1994)
Directed by James Cameron
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold
Action, Comedy, Thriller (2h 21m)
Back in 1994, Arnold Schwarzenegger was known for action blockbusters like Total Recall (1990) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). So, when he signed up for a comedy, people were skeptical.
However, the final result was True Lies, a fun romp of a film that centers on the life of a spy who just wants to lead a normal life.
One day, Harry Tasker attempts to give his wife a fun surprise, but in doing so, he unknowingly leads her deep into the world of cutthroat espionage. Gags and fist-fights follow.
7. The Conversation (1974)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield
Drama, Mystery, Thriller (1h 53m)
After the resounding success of The Godfather, Paramount gave Francis Ford Coppola the green light and free rein over his pet project The Conversation.
Coppola wanted to make a movie about how surveillance had evolved into a business. He wanted to focus on the person doing the surveilling as opposed to the people being observed.
His admiration for "the moods and the way those things happened" in the film Blow Up made him want to attempt a challenging movie like The Conversation, claiming "I want to do something like that."
He even considers The Conversation to be the best movie he's ever made. Though I would argue that Apocalypse Now (1979) or The Godfather (1972) are potential winners, The Conversation is definitely in the running for that title.
6. Munich (2005)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Marie-Josée Croze
Action, Drama, History (2h 44m)
Steven Spielberg stepped away from his usual family-friendly films when he made Munich, a film that's both a spy-action thriller and a rumination on the nature and ethics of revenge.
Based on the true story of when Israeli athletes were assassinated at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the film follows what happened next.
Powerful people aren't willing to let this international crime go unpunished, so they decide to hunt down everyone involved, crossing their names off the list one by one.
Though Munich is one of Spielberg's lowest-grossing films domestically, it's still one of his finest.
5. Bridge of Spies (2015)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda
Drama, History, Thriller (2h 22m)
Another Steven Spielberg entry, Bridge of Spies encapsulates what's most important and what's always at stake when you get involved in the spy business.
When a Russian spy is captured in America, he's charged with treason and held in a maximum security prison. While most just want him hanged, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) defends him in court because he believes in The Constitution.
While his pursuit of impartiality and fairness make him an admirable man, it puts him in a rough position: as negotiator of a historic prisoner trade between two nations on edge.
4. Body of Lies (2008)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong
Action, Drama, Thriller (2h 8m)
Director Ridley Scott and fan-favorite Leonardo DiCaprio were both in prime form when they gave us Body of Lies.
The story follows two CIA operatives—one a field agent, the other the chief of operations in Langley—who are trying to locate and capture a dangerous terrorist.
Unfortunately, the only thing they know is that he goes by the name of Al-Saleem. Nothing is ever simple when you're a spy.
Relationships grow fractious as stress builds up, obstacles pile on, and options appear to dwindle away. With time running out, success may only come via desperate measures.
3. North by Northwest (1959)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason
Action, Adventure, Mystery (2h 16m)
Alfred Hitchcock loved the spy genre—his filmography offers ample evidence of that—and his best foray into the world of espionage will always be North by Northwest.
Featuring standout performances from Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, and James Mason, the plot of North by Northwest is quick, exciting, and even darkly humorous at times.
It also features some of the most iconic scenes in cinema history, and that alone makes it a must-watch. Sure, it may be old, but it's considered a classic film for good reason!
2. Sneakers (1992)
Directed by Phil Alden Robinson
Starring Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Sidney Poitier
Comedy, Crime, Drama (2h 6m)
In Sneakers, Robert Redford helms one of the greatest ensemble casts in film history, including Ben Kingsley, Dan Aykroyd, Sidney Poitier, David Straithairn, Mary McDonnell, and more.
Written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, Sneakers follows a band of misfits who are approached by men in dark suits: they want Martin Bishop (Robert Redford) to recover a "black box."
However, it soon becomes clear that this job involves too many webs, making it impossible for anyone to escape unscathed. Can Martin satisfy his dangerous contractors while keeping his team safe?
1. Sicario (2015)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro
Action, Crime, Drama (2h 1m)
Denis Villeneuve, one of the greatest film directors of our time, made one of the most intense spy thrillers ever made in Sicario.
A CIA agent (Emily Blunt) is asked if she would like to accompany a mission down into Mexico. However, she soon realizes that the true nature of her mission isn't what she was initially told.
Lies, betrayal, and deceit become the world she lives in. Everyone has a gun—and they all know how to use it.
With mesmerizing performances from Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro, Sicario is a taut, edge-of-your-seat thriller with a complex plot and lots of gray morality. It's a must-watch film for genre fans.