In 1962, a small British film arrived in cinemas. It was based on the spy novels of Ian Fleming and starred Sean Connery—a relatively unknown actor—in its leading role. He was sent on a mission by the British government, which led him to meeting the eponymous Dr. No.
Dr. No met with rave reviews and began one of the world’s greatest cinematic action franchises. Its sequels have seen five other men take on the role of the famed James Bond, spanning six decades of history and shaping the modern spy movie genre as we know it.
Because of the success of James Bond, the spy genre is now a staple of modern cinema, bringing us the likes of Ethan Hunt to George Smiley as they’ve all gotten big-screen outings—and even taking big box office rewards and winning Academy Awards in the process.
But not all of these characters are made equal. Here are our picks for the best movie spies and secrets agents we’ve seen, and why they stand out from their contemporaries.
7. Lorraine Broughton (Atomic Blonde)
The 2017 movie Atomic Blonde met with warm critical reviews for the film itself, but Charlize Theron’s iteration of Lorraine Broughton was acclaimed. There aren’t enough female spies in film history, and Theron made audiences wish there were more.
Set in 1989, the film follows Lorraine—a spy working for MI6 who’s sent to Berlin to find and recover a list of agents currently working on either side of the Wall. Lorraine battles through Berlin’s underbelly to locate that list and return it to her superiors.
However, as we follow Lorraine deeper into the film, we find her allegiances are not what they initially appeared.
The action sequences in Atomic Blonde are influenced heavily by the stylized John Wick franchise, which works well in bringing Lorraine’s abilities across as a secret agent while making the audience feel like they’re right there in the middle of the fight.
Despite featuring in only one film, Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton was instantly iconic. A sequel is currently being developed by Netflix.
6. Harry Palmer (The Ipcress File)
A street-level agent, Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer was a reaction to the grandeur of the Bond franchise. Palmer is more gritty, less cynical, and more believable than his British counterpart—however, he’s just as intelligent and just as cunning.
The best movie starring Harry Palmer is The Ipcress File, in which Palmer tracks down a missing scientist named Radcliffe. The film takes Harry through dark London streets as he uncovers a conspiracy—a vast plot to brainwash people into doing the bidding of others.
Harry Palmer is the anti-Bond in many ways: he’s insubordinate, has no use for flashy cars or fast women, and has a penchant for cooking. It’s this grounded reality that makes Palmer a great spy, as he isn’t somebody one would suspect to be a spy at first glance.
5. Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has given the world cinematic spectacle unlike any before. The narratives of the vast and wide-ranging films have changed the way many look at long-term cinematic stories—and Natasha Romanoff is the spy caught in the middle of the mighty Avengers.
She needs no superpowers and has no all-powerful weapons to speak of. Rather, she’s a master of survival and is often the person who’s called upon to do what needs doing—because she rarely questions her orders and doesn’t consult her moral compass beforehand.
Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of Natasha is one of the MCU’s finest performances, using Natasha’s presence to bring humanity to the Avengers. And her death in Endgame was an example of her doing what needed to be done, even at her own expense.
4. George Smiley (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy)
Though George Smiley has appeared in a few of John le Carré’s adaptations, nobody has ever captured the nuance of the character like Gary Oldman did in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley must find a mole inside “Circus”—the highest level of the Intelligence Service—while working for the Soviet regime at the height of the Cold War.
Smiley is what many think a British spy would look like if he were not called James Bond: he rarely fights with anybody, he’s vastly intelligent, and he always plays his cards at opportune moments.
Gary Oldman’s portrayal of George Smiley brought all these qualities in abundance as he navigated the complex British Intelligence Service in trying to find the Soviet mole.
3. Jason Bourne (The Bourne Identity)
Matt Damon’s initial Bourne trilogy helped to change spy movies as the world knew them at the time. The franchise brought a sense of reality to the genre—a style that had quick, bloody violence yet was thought-out and devoid of gadgets, gimmicks, and hyperbolic weapons.
Jason Bourne is a CIA special agent who went rogue during one mission to assassinate a former African dictator. He was injured during his escape, which led to him suffering amnesia.
He wakes up with no idea of who he is and sets out to pick up the shattered pieces of his identity from what he can find. Along the way, his old masters in the CIA attempt to find Bourne and bring him in for questioning—and likely put him down permanently.
Damon’s portrayal of Jason Bourne is phenomenal. He brings across the story of a man who can’t remember his past but still constantly fights for his future and the truth, and he carries a ruthless honesty that few other movie spies and secret agents have ever managed.
2. Ethan Hunt (Mission: Impossible)
Over the course of Mission: Impossible’s soon-to-be eight movies, Tom Cruise has changed Ethan Hunt in admirable ways. Plus, there’s a sense of fun to Mission: Impossible movies that isn’t in other spy films.
Initially, Ethan started as a young agent in the US IMF Agency, going where he needed to go and killing who he was told to kill. But as the films progressed, Hunt became a master of his art.
He’s aware that anything can go wrong at any moment and he doesn’t hold trust in those who he doesn’t know intimately. These are believable traits for a character who has been a cinematic agent for 25 years.
Tom Cruise’s relentless approach to performing his own stunts and pulling off sequences that nobody else would do sets his series apart from the rest, as it showcases a dedication to cinema that no other spy or action film series has ever matched.
1. James Bond
How could spot number one go to anybody else? James Bond is the truest beginning of the spy movie genre—and its most famous agent.
Mr. Bond has been officially portrayed by six men over his six decades in cinema: Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig. All of them have brought their individual interpretations of the character to the screen.
Sean Connery is widely considered the defining portrayal of the spy, who works for Her Majesty’s Government in MI6 under the codename of 007. Connery is the man who brought the sharp suit, the swagger, and the charm to such a renegade character—yet behind it all, his ruthless nature to kill whoever got in his way was evident just under the surface.
All other spy movies are, in some way, an homage to the Bond series. All of them take from Bond’s cinematic success, which is sustained because of the spy’s indomitable legacy.