James Bond. Okay, we’re done. That’s right, unless we get the 007lb gorilla out of the room right up front, you wonderful readers will be arguing ad nauseum about his placement and where/when he will fall on this list. Naturally, he takes number one. No question…and therefore, no suspense. Indeed, the truth remains that, within the entire espionage subgenre, there is no greater onscreen spy than Mr. Licensed to Kill himself. Whether he takes the persona of Sean Connery (still the upper most of the topper most) or Daniel Craig, Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan (the less said about Timothy Dalton, the better), Bond is the best, there is no questioning the conceit. In fact, there is probably no other character in any medium whose had the longevity, the impact, and the lasting appeal of the ultimate ’60s jet setting secret agent.
So where does that leave the rest of the cinematic spies? Clearly, lower down the talent totem pole and jealous of the affection someone like Bond mandates. Scholars have shuffled through the character’s complicated oeuvre, measuring out his effectiveness and abilities in decades long debates and almost every movie to come down the pipeline since has modeled at least some aspect of their narrative approach or aesthetic from those crackerjack counterculture entertainments. Take the new to DVD/Blu-ray release of The Double. In an effective if minor thriller, Richard Gere plays a retired CIA agent brought back in to help the FBI track the identity of a Russian hitman named ‘Cassius.’ Of course, in the land of backstabbing and mixed allegiances, it could be anyone…and it all follows the formula that Bond and his creative buddies set down years before.
Without Sir James, the remaining list is an intriguing combination of pure commercial fodder and some frequently fascinating foreign entries. We are also opening up the category to include people without a clear political affiliation, individuals who may be plying their particular trade in the service of a private, not a public cause. Even better, without Bond, we can look at all the reinterpretations of same and settle on who, in a box office battle royale, would take the title if James never existed. So remember, 007 is the unquestioned king of the spy world. The rest of the entries on this list represent the 10 Best Movie Spies outside his inclusion. Let’s begin with one of the youngest members of this counterintelligence collective:
Ever since she was born, Hanna was marked. Seen as the ultimate payoff in an unusual human spy experiment, her existence (when finally confirmed) causes an international uproar. Good thing her former spy father taught her everything he knows about personal and political counterintelligence and defense. Even as a timid team, Hanna’s (a wonderfully grown-up turn by Saoirse Ronan) instinctual ability to survive (and her amazing physical skill at doing so) means that anyone who approaches her does so at their own risk. As part of a fractured post-modern fairytale about battling the evil queen…and winning…this little girl is totally bad-ass.
Granted, he’s an accidental “spy” at best, taking over for the man he was mistaken for at the behest of the government. But as a prototype for the suave sophistication that Bond would eventually bank on, there is no one better (or more believable) than Cary Grant’s Thornhill. At first, he is flummoxed. Then, he’s unwitting. By the end, however, he has been threatened and defeated, and he will not let this part of the Cold War end without making a difference. His idealism is matched only by his matinee idol looks – just like a future British secret agent.
With his steely jaw and laser eyes, Ethan Hunt seems impervious to the possibility of being double crossed or countermanded. Still, every time out, he seems stumped or sideswiped by a faction either within or outside the IMF…and then he has to put on his battle armor and fight. From the top of the highest building in the world to the back of a speeding train underneath the English Channel, he can handle himself in any arena. Better still, there’s no comedy to his capering, no attempt to play things semi-serious. Hunt leaves the laughing to others. He has bigger international fish to fry.
She starts out a drug addicted lowlife who murders a police officer and is sentenced to life in prison. There, her death is faked so she can become a pawn in an experiment by a shady government agency. Soon, Nikita (an excellent Anne Parillaud) is a skilled Femme Fatale, taking on missions while maintaining a cover life with her Parisian boyfriend. Naturally, when one of her most important plans goes pear shaped, she must try to save herself and get out of the game with her life, and her lover, intact. Naturally, it’s a lot harder than it sounds.
If Roger Thornhill set the stage and James Bond rebuilt it into a fortress, the world weary assassin named ‘Jack’ (George Clooney in all his mancrush glory) is the last man standing along the parapets. His skill set is still intact, and no one will question either his commitment or drive, but after so many years in the field, so many killings and so many lax emotional attachments, love eludes him…and he no longer can tolerate the dodge. Of course, no one gets out of the game clean and Jack’s struggles to stay one step ahead of his handlers becomes his greatest mission ever.
5 – 1
If it takes a thief to catch one, then it clearly takes a seasoned spy to unearth a mole in one’s midst. With the great Gary Oldman as Smiley (a role originated by the late, equally amazing Sir Alec Guinness) and a narrative that knots itself into a complicated collection of dares and double crosses, you expect lots of action and intrigue. Instead, Smiley is a thinking man’s secret agent, a chess player challenged by the greatest match ever imagined – one within his own house. Though we are sure of his success, his aging aura also reminds us of his wisdom…and worth.
He’s the Superman of the spy game. All he needs is a pair of tights, a custom costume, and a police warning beacon shining across the night sky to seal the deal. Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime), a member of an elite American intelligence group, punches, kicks, shoots, kills, flies, fires, and basically belittles everything and anyone that dare dump on the US of A. The romance subplot may add some necessary character dimension, but when you are avoiding nuclear fallout and piloting a jet across the top of the Miami skyline, your love life isn’t really all that important.
There is nothing worse than being a bystander to a power struggle within your own organization. Now imagine that you are pencil pusher Joe Turner (played brilliantly by Robert Redford) suddenly forced to fend for yourself against forces committed to cleaning internal house. With the stakes so high and the moral ambiguity of the ’70s lashing at the sides, what should be a standard suspense effort turns into something quite telling. At the time, America was a country unable to trust itself or its authorities. Someone like Turner was therefore more than a spy. He was a symbol of a country on the philosophical run.
It’s le Carre again, and it’s yet another slow burn spiral into the world of old fashioned East/West conflicts. This time, however, the impetus of everything right and wrong in the spy world rests on the weary shoulders of long time operative Leamus. Forced to put on an act in order to convince the Germans he is defecting, his entire ruse becomes a reminder of how fragile a life in espionage is. As essayed by the great Richard Burton (who earned an Oscar nomination for his work), the entirety of British Intelligence seems to circle his fractured facade, like wolves on a piece of carrion.
He’s the perfect panacea for an audience no longer capable of a long attention span. With Paul Greengrass behind the lens and Matt Damon before (Doug Liman started it all), these action packed presentations are a clever combination of excellent casting and solid shaky-cam hysterics. We are there and we are just as scared as everyone else. Sure, Bourne can be a bit superhumanh, outsmarting people, places, and problems with an effective pound of his fists and a PhD’s intellect. Even better, the amnesia angle allows for lots of backstory melodrama, giving the character more complexity than your typical spy on the run.