Spys, assassins, surveillance, gadgets, moles, villains, henchmen and ever-present danger? Espionage movies have it all! And they come in all forms—edge-of-your-seat action flicks, dead-serious slow-burn dramas, silly comedy spoofs, and everything in between.
These are the best espionage movies and spy movies to satisfy your itch for all things clandestine. You may recognize some of these, but there may be a few you’ve never heard of, either!
Other than maybe Men in Black and possibly Independence Day, Will Smith’s best movie might just be Enemy of the State.
This espionage thriller captures a late-90s flavor 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.
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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.
There have been all kinds of spy-spoof movies over the years, but not a single 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.
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.
Paramount gave Francis Ford Coppola the green light and free reign over his pet project The Conversation after the resounding success of The Godfather.
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 ever made.
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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!
Jason Bourne is America’s greatest answer to England’s James Bond. There was also Jack Ryan (whose franchise never got pinned by with any consistent attributes) as well as Ethan Hunt (who was always held back by Tom Cruise’s weird energy).
Unlike those two, Jason Bourne managed to be his own unique character while matching the coolness of James Bond. The Bourne series of films has a strong identity to it, and—pardon the pun—it all started with the excellence of The Bourne Identity.
We can see the influence this franchise had on James Bond when we look at Casino Royale and Daniel Craig’s era of the character.
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.