The Best Spies in Movies, Ranked

Highly skilled, and terribly lethal, spies have always been morbidly fascinating as a genre in film. There’s something thrilling about espionage. It isn’t just about defeating enemies; it’s about stealing information or completing missions, and above all, doing it while staying undetected or eluding capture. Spies can usually speak many languages; they hide in shadows or underneath disguises; and their arsenal can boast anything from high-tech gadgets and incredible, flashy cars, to improvisation with anything they can get their hands on. A spy is crafty, intelligent, and almost always stylish.

The best spies are known not just for their success in missions, but also for their compelling story, unique style, and impressive skills. Among this sneaky crowd, who are the best spies in movies?


6 Nikita – La Femme Nikita

La Femme Nikita is unlike other spy movies. Nikita is a spy with a different kind of backstory – she didn’t actually choose the life she leads. Starting off as a troubled, criminal youth, she is sentenced to life in prison for killing a cop, then busted out by a secret French government agency known as “The Center”. They fake her death, and force her into a life of espionage – she is told to either learn how to kill, or be killed. Nikita is then trained in martial arts, weapons, and computer skills, transforming from a troubled addict into a deadly spy.

Over time, and perhaps because of her lack of choice in this life, Nikita develops a conscience and begins questioning her assignments, eventually using her skills to regain her freedom. Initially played by Anne Parillaud, this character has been redone in multiple movies and TV shows, most successfully with the show Nikita, where actress Maggie Q played her as free and are on revenge against the agency that trained her. Parillaud was first, though, and was the one who gave Nikita the unique feeling of being somehow both vulnerable and highly capable.

5 George Smiley – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Based on the Cold War spy thriller novel of the same name by John le Carré, the CIA agent George Smiley has been portrayed in media as a TV series and a radio play, but it’s the movie adaptation with Gary Oldman as Smiley that is most widely known. Oldman perfectly captures the subtle nuance of Smiley, who must spy on his own agency inside the “Circus”, which is the name for the highest ring of British Intelligence. Smiley is quiet and unassuming, using his intelligence to navigate the difficult situation he’s in as he searches for the Soviet mole inside the Circus. He has a bitter resignation to his work, with a shade of regret or remorse, and Oldman’s portrayal earned him a nomination for an Academy Award. The movie, dark and gritty, is considered as perhaps the most realistic spy movie of all time.

Related: The Best Villains from Spy Movies, Ranked

4 Natasha Romanoff – Black Widow

Natasha Romanoff started off as a KGB agent trained in the “Red Room”, a secret Russian organization that trained women to be assassins called Black Widows. She is eventually recruited into SHIELD, and becomes a founding member of the superhero group The Avengers, later, holding her own side by side with gods and super-powered beings. She is most familiar as portrayed by Scarlett Johansson, and first appeared in Iron Man 2 as an undercover spy. Natasha brings both the heart and the impressive spy skills, holding the Avengers together as their leader after the events of Avengers: Infinity War. She’s ready and willing to sacrifice herself to save others, and is considered one of the best women spies to this day.

3 Ethan Hunt – The Mission Impossible series

Starting way back in 1996, the Mission Impossible franchise has grown into one of the most successful action-adventure franchises ever. And that is largely due to the success of Tom Cruise in the lead role as secret agent Ethan Hunt. Hunt works for the IMF (Impossible Mission Force), ready to jump into operations that others would deem impossible. Whether it’s stealing confidential information such as an “NOC list”, or racing to prevent the release of a deadly virus, Hunt uses disguises, tech gadgets, and a solid backup team to get his mission accomplished.

These movies are just plain fun, and they only get better as time goes on. With six films out currently and another two on the way, the Mission Impossible series is a solid entry into the realm of spy films, and a lot of the credit for that is in Tom Cruise’s relentless excellence as the daredevil Hunt. There is something especially thrilling about watching Cruise do his own incredible stunts, which makes the grinning daredevil of Ethan Hunt’s character all the more believable. Of all the movies on this list, the Mission Impossible movies are definitely the best when it comes to pure action and fun.

2 Jason Bourne – The Bourne Series

the Bourne Identity is based on a book of the same name by Robert Ludlum, and was a refreshing approach to the spy genre. The book was adapted to a TV movie in 1988, but it was Matt Damon‘s portrayal of Jason Bourne in 2002 that solidly defined the character on screen. Jason Bourne is a CIA agent who is injured and wakes up with amnesia – playing upon the familiar fluidity of identity in the spy genre. He still retains all of his physical skills, though, and his muscle memory and deep instincts take over. His story is fascinating to watch as he pursues his past, while being pursued by the agency that trained him in intense behavioral modification to make him the ultimate spy, and now considers him a liability and a threat.

Damon’s performance as Bourne is one of his most iconic roles, and is definitely one of his best. He brings a kind of ruthless honesty to the character, coming across as someone who is relentless in the search for the truth, and the fight for justice. Rather than using flashy gadgets or impressive technology, the Bourne series is more grounded and improvisational, as Bourne is shown to be able to use anything as a weapon, and can get himself out of any situation instinctively. These movies changed spy films for years to come, influencing the genre with their gritty realism and compelling underdog story, and the original will always be an action classic.

Related: Here’s All the James Bond Actors, Ranked

1 James Bond – The 007 Series

It is no surprise that Agent 007 would be at the top of any spy list. With wildly inventive gadgets, elegant sports cars, memorable villains, and beautiful women, the James Bond franchise is a blend of characteristics that is shaken, not stirred. It is impossible to think of the spy genre and not have the quintessential secret agent come to mind. Now, at 24 movies spanning over six decades, the Bond franchise set the stage for the entire genre, and is considered one of the best movie franchises in history. The movie series started off with dr. no in 1965, but the first book came out in 1953 by Ian Fleming, whose life story is almost a Bond movie of its own. Since then, this spy has been played by six different actors, each with their own unique take on Bond – though Sean Connery is the man who defined his style. But all of them retained that effortless charm, confidence, and wit. James Bond has gone on to inspire countless homages and parodies. Always imitated, but never duplicated, James Bond is the best spy in the business.

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