Operatives. Spies. Moles. Infiltrators. Secret agents go by many names. In fact, Britain’s national security agency doesn’t even call them agents – they’re covert human intelligence sources, or simply “officers.” Whatever we choose to call them, secret agents lead necessarily furtive and obscure lives – so obscure, in fact, that most of what we know about them is defined by what we’ve seen and read in books and movies.
During the Cold War, the image of the secret agent as a well-groomed sophisticate in a suit proliferated all over the world, and even in the high-tech landscape of the 21st century, that image still stands–just look at such movies as Kingsman: The Secret Service and The Man From U.N.C.L.E..
Then again, the following list also proves, secret agents can come in many different forms. Some have trained for the life of a spy, but many of them have the world of espionage and imminent death thrust upon them. Below you’ll find plenty of famous names from the world of espionage, but we’ve also picked out a few other great secret agents from cinema history who, we think, deserve their own brief moment in the spotlight.
The following are ranked in descending order, from least to best.
25. Jimmy Tong – The Tuxedo (2002)
Jackie Chan affectionately sent up the spy genre with The Tuxedo, in which he plays an ordinary taxi driver who’s transformed by a feat of technological magic into a suave secret agent in the James Bond mold. The underlying joke is that charismatic spies like Bond get their miraculous powers of combat and seduction not from years of training and the kind of lingering self-confidence you get from going to expensive schools, but from wearing special tuxedos.
The film’s lightweight stuff, but Chan’s gleeful take on the genre is infectious – a scene where he’s frantically trying to get his high-tech trousers on while simultaneously fighting an army of bad guys is a particular highlight.
24. Derek Flint – Our Man Flint (1966)
Long before Top Secret! and Austin Powers, there was Our Man Flint, a send-up of the whole swinging ’60s craze for spy movies. It has a crazed criminal organisation, mad scientists with a dangerous device (in this instance, a weather-altering machine) and, of course, a suave secret agent – James Coburn’s Derek Flint. Coaxed out of retirement because a superior agent isn’t available (“0008”), Flint’s a quintessentially ’60s spy – unflappable, flirty, and handy with a karate chop. Coburn gives Flint an easy charm, and he’s highly effective in his combat scenes. Just look at how high Coburn can kick, and try to imagine Roger Moore doing the same thing…
23. Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin – The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
They’re from opposing sides of the Iron Curtain and forced to work together for the greater good. From the U.S. we have the vain, calculating Napoleon Solo, played by Robert Vaughn in the U.N.C.L.E. ‘60s TV series and played by the four-square Henry Cavill in Guy Ritchie‘s movie revival. From the USSR we have Armie Hammer‘s Ilya Kuryakin, a towering, angrier version of the character once filled by heartthrob David McCallum. Mortal enemies at first, then reluctant partners, their constant rivalry – and spark of chemistry – is the defining element in Ritchie’s glossy reboot.
22. Phil Coulson – Iron Man 2, Thor, The Avengers (2010-2012)
He may not have superpowers, but Agent Coulson has rapidly become one of the most popular supporting characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One of the major reasons for this is Clark Gregg‘s easygoing performance; Coulson may be an agent for one of the most powerful organisations on Earth, but he’s essentially a likable everyman. Surrounded as he is by an armored billionaire, a god from outer space, and patriotic super-soldier, Coulson provides the link between the realm of superheroes and the (relatively) everyday.
21. Harry Tasker – True Lies (1994)
While the James Bond series took an extended break from 1989 until the mid-1990s, Hollywood megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped in to fill the breach. In James Cameron’s True Lies (a remake of France’s La Totale!), Schwarzenegger plays the particularly brawny Harry Tasker – a covert operative who pretends to his wife and daughter that he’s a computer salesman.
Tasker gets to do all the things you’d expect in a Bond pastiche – he wears a dinner suit, meets exotic ladies, and makes pithy quips after shooting bad guys. Tasker isn’t the most subtle of secret agents, but he’s probably one of the most creative when it comes to moments of crisis. Who else would think of riding a horse to the top of a skyscraper?
20. Mallory Kane – Haywire (2011)
MMA fighter Gina Carano turned action hero in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. The opening sequence tells you everything you need to know about Carano’s unspeakably tough operative, Mallory Kane: despite receiving a full cup of steaming hot coffee to the face, she manages to batter Channing Tatum into a quivering huddle. A decidedly modern kind of agent, Mallory works for a private contractor, who for reasons unknown appears to have turned against her. Notably lacking in zinging one-liners though she is, Mallory’s a convincingly tough character in a story full of betrayal and would-be assassins.
19. Agents K and J – Men in Black (1997-2012)
They’re sci-fi’s most recognizable odd couple. With their black suits and matching glasses, Agents K (Tommy Lee Jones) and reluctant partner J (Will Smith) bicker their way through the most obscure jobs on the planet: keeping an eye on the activities of extraterrestrials walking our planet, without alerting the general public to their presence. The most enjoyable parts of the three Men in Black films made so far have come from K and J’s strained relationship – the former terse and uptight, the latter humorous and easygoing. Even when the alien effects and action spin wildly out of control, Smith and Jones provide the franchise’s rock-solid center.
18. John Mason – The Rock (1996)
Even well into his 60s, Sean Connery still convinced as a gun-toting action hero. In Michael Bay’s The Rock, he’s essentially James Bond in all but name; there are even fan theories that John Mason is intended to be Connery’s Bond, with the repeated mention of Mason’s adventures as a British Intelligence operative working in the mid-1960s. Caught stealing sensitive documents from the FBI, Mason is incarcerated for 33 years and eventually dug out for a new mission, older but still cool under fire and always ready with a witty retort.
17. Susan Cooper – Spy (2015)
It’s a common approach in spy thrillers to throw an ordinary person into an extraordinary situation – for some classic examples, see Alfred Hitchcock‘s North by Northwest or Sidney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor. In Spy, Melissa McCarthy‘s CIA desk jockey is suddenly sent on a life-or-death mission across Europe, which takes in a bomb in a suitcase, casinos, explosions, and fast cars. McCarthy’s great value as an unlikely secret agent, and her scenes with Jason Statham, who happens to play the sweariest secret agent in film history, are a real high-point.
16. Felix Leiter – The Bond Series (1962-)
Played by a range of actors, from Jack Lord, Cec Linder, and Rik Van Nutter in the ’60s to Jeffrey Wright in the 2000s, Felix Leiter is best known as James Bond’s contact with the CIA and one of his closest allies. Although experiencing some unpleasant situations that Bond has skilfully managed to avoid in his own career (see Ian Fleming’s original Live and Let Die novel and 1989’s unusually violent Licence to Kill), Leiter remains an affable counterpoint to 007’s icy resolve.
15. Evelyn Salt – Salt (2010)
We’ve seen Angelina Jolie appear in action films before (see Tomb Raider and Mr. & Mrs. Smith), but she’s superbly poker-faced as the enigmatic Evelyn Salt. We know she’s some kind of spy, but whose side is she on: the U.S. or Russia’s? Director Philip Noyce and writer Kurt Wimmer keep that question dangling from Salt‘s beginning until almost the end, but it’s Jolie’s performance that keeps the story simmering: she’s dangerous, sly and, perhaps, a traitor. And all of that’s what makes her so compelling to watch.
14. Edgar Brodie – Secret Agent (1936)
A young John Gielgud is magnificent in this 1930s thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Set in the midst of World War I, Secret Agent sees Gielgud’s army captain Edgar Brodie despatched to covertly track down a German agent en route to Arabia. Under a new identity, Brodie’s partnered with an assassin (the great Peter Lorre), but finds himself ill-equipped to deal with the murderous aspects of his new vocation. Gielgud plays a wonderfully British, reserved sort of spy–a striking counterpoint to the increasingly tough agents we’d see in the later thrillers of the 20th century.
13. Harry Hart – Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)
Before Kingsman came out this year, few would have imagined that Colin Firth would be so effective as a combat-ready secret agent. With his retro glasses, expensive tailoring and precise hair, Firth’s Harry Hart is a spy in the ’60s mold, but just wait until he’s backed into a corner.
As the film’s heavily-publicized bar room fight scene proves, he can deliver a punch or kick as well as any modern action hero.
12. Bruce Lee – Enter The Dragon (1973)
Okay, so Bruce Lee isn’t trained as a secret agent in his final and most famous film, but Enter The Dragon does see him hired by a British Intelligence agent to go on a top secret mission, so he still just about qualifies. Lee also gets to indulge in all the activities you’d expect from a seasoned spy; under the pretext of entering a martial arts tournament, he infiltrates the island lair of an evil villain named Han. There, he engages in moonlit reconnaissance missions, uncovers a huge drug operation, and engages the cat-stroking Han (Shih Kien) in mortal combat.
With many plot points seemingly taken directly from Dr. No, Enter The Dragon could have been the start of a Bond-like martial arts spy franchise for Lee. Tragically, the star died on July 20, 1973 – just six days before Enter The Dragon appeared in theaters.
11. Jack Ryan – The Hunt for Red October (1990-)
Played by no fewer than four actors across five films, Jack Ryan is arguably author Tom Clancy’s most famous creation. Ostensibly a CIA analyst, Ryan inevitably ends up in the thick of the action, whether he’s on the trail of a stolen soviet submarine, saving members of the British royal family from assassins or foiling terrorist plots. To date, Harrison Ford’s incarnation of Ryan is arguably the best; he’s smart, tenacious and, despite his tendency to use his brain rather than his fists to win his battles, still capable of holding his own in a violent encounter.
10. Alec Leamas – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
Richard Burton brings a wonderfully bitter, grim edge to Alec Leamas, a British agent caught in an intelligence intrigue in the midst of the Cold War. Based on the novel by John Le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold depicts the soul-destroying downside of life as a spy, a profession where you’re never quite sure who you can trust and where moral boundaries are murky at best.
9. Ethan Hunt – Mission: Impossible (1996-)
Sharing Bond’s cheerful disregard for his own safety, Ethan Hunt of Mission: Impossible is the grinning daredevil of modern action cinema. But Hunt (Tom Cruise) is also a master of disguise and a cunning tactician – how else can he so reliably get into high-tech, impossibly fortified buildings? Ably assisted by his ever-changing team of agents (most regularly Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn and Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell) Hunt is perhaps the least conflicted of screen spies. He lacks the inner darkness of Bond or the identity crisis of Bourne, and while his appetite for danger might suggest a self-destructive edge, there’s always the sense that he’s in the spy game merely for the thrill of the chase.
8. Joe Turner – Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Spies and secret agents are necessarily closed-off, elusive sorts, so making them into interesting characters is a difficult task for any writer or actor. Thanks to amalgam of both great writing, acting and direction, Joe Turner emerges as one of the most watchable agents of film history. Robert Redford plays him as a CIA analyst utterly unprepared for the world of violence and murder thrust upon him. “I’m not a field agent,” he protests down the phone to his superiors at the CIA. “I just read books!” In a film pregnant with paranoia and the constant threat of danger, Redford’s on career-best form here.
7. Gunther Bachmann – A Most Wanted Man (2014)
Where Ian Fleming’s spy novels were about the glamor and fantasy of the spy game, John Le Carré’s books are closer to the mundane, downbeat reality. The author’s 2008 book of the same name found the perfect counterpart in director Anton Corbijn, whose stark photography is perfect for the concrete grayness of this low-key thriller. But most of all, Philip Seymour Hoffman is ideal casting as the crumpled, weary Gunther Bachman, the leader of an undercover counter-terrorist unit. Gravel-voiced and glum, Hoffman’s impeccable (and tragically, final) performance leads us into a tangled world of surveillance and intrigue.
6. Nikita – La Femme Nikita (1990)
What makes Nikita so watchable is its lead character’s reluctance to become an agent and undercover state assassin. Initially a drug-addled drop-out, Nikita (Anne Parilaud) is given a stark choice: either train to become an operative or die in prison. The result is an action twist on Pigmalion, as the wayward Nikita gradually transforms herself into a deadly fighting machine. What makes the character so believable isn’t just Parilaud’s prowess in her action scenes, but her vulnerable ordinariness: one protracted gun fight sees her leap from danger and land in a trash-filled dumpster. Her performance brings grit and humor to director Luc Besson’s glossy action.
5. Alicia Huberman – Notorious (1946)
Before Nikita, Evelyn Salt, or Mallory Kane, there was Ingrid Bergman’s stellar performance as Alicia Huberman. In Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller, Notorious, Alica’s the daughter of a convicted German spy who is herself pressed into service as an agent for the Americans. Sent to Brazil to infiltrate a group of Nazis, Alicia’s soon caught between the affections of Devlin (Cary Grant), an ice-cold U.S. agent, and Sebastian (Claude Rains), one of the Nazis she’s ordered to seduce. A superbly drawn character, her inner-strength is offset by her capacity for drink. Indeed Alicia is one of the earliest–and still most interesting–secret agents in film.
4. Jason Bourne – The Bourne Series (2002-)
As embodied by Matt Damon, Jason Bourne felt like a breath of fresh air when he first appeared in 2002. Sure, he’s an indescribably tough former agent with the kind of skills that most of us could only dream of, but his amnesia and grim past mark him out as an underdog worth rooting for. And at a time when the Bond franchise was becoming increasingly mired in implausible gadgets (see Die Another Day‘s invisible car – or rather, don’t), Bourne’s tendency to fight with pens and books, or drive around in battered old cars, marked him out as a very different kind of hero. As an example of just how important Damon’s incarnation of Bourne is to the series, look no further than 2012’s The Bourne Legacy. Jeremy Renner does his best as Aaron Cross, but an agent in constant need of brain-boosting pills is no replacement for Bourne and his ever-present identity crisis.
3. George Smiley – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Another adaptation of a John Le Carré spy novel, this one with an all-star cast which includes Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Towering over them all is Gary Oldman as British Intelligence officer George Smiley, an operative whose skills are cerebral rather than athletic. He’s a noble character whose face is lined with a subtle yet profound undercurrent of regret. Just look at the scene Smiley shares with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Peter Guillam. “We both spend our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another’s systems,” he observes, ruefully.
Deservingly, Oldman was nominated for an Academy Award for his outstanding turn here.
2. Harry Palmer – The Ipcress File (1965)
Michael Caine brings a brilliantly brash, abrasive edge to Harry Palmer, the hero he first played in The Ipcress File. So much of Palmer’s character goes against the grain of the typical ’60s spy. He’s working class, not upper crust; he wears glasses and relatively casual clothes, enjoys cooking, and his dry humor clearly irks his more refined superiors. Caine is perfect for this early attempt to capture the grittier, more prosaic side of life as a spy, and the allure of the character was such that he played the character four more times – in the sequels Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain, and in the 1990s thrillers Bullet To Beijing and Midnight In Saint Petersburg. It was The Ipcress File that saw Caine at the height of his powers, and with his turn cut to John Barry’s prowling theme tune, it’s among the best British spy thrillers ever made. As Nigel Green’s upper-crust Major Dalby puts it, “You’re just too hot, Palmer.”
1. James Bond (1962-)
Shaken but not stirred, often imitated but never bettered. Since his big screen debut in Dr. No, James Bond has formed part of the cultural landscape–his choice of clothing, taste in booze, and witticisms are recognized (and parodied) the world over. For more than 50 years, Bond has embodied the romance of being a secret agent while the best films have brought out more than a hint of its dark side, too. Sean Connery gave us the flinty streak present in Ian Fleming’s novels, even as the later films continuously upped the one-liners and action set-pieces. Like any spy worth his salt, Bond has survived by taking on different forms: the imposing, rugged Connery, the urbane, laidback Roger Moore, the introspective, street-tough Daniel Craig.
Unlike the movies adapted from the novels by John Le Carré or Len Deighton, Bond deals with the seductive fantasy of spy craft rather than the mundane, soul-sapping reality. But therein lies Bond’s almost universal appeal: 007’s stock in trade may be death and destruction, but the glamorous circles in which he moves are a world away from the desk jobs, coffee machines, and daily grinds of we ordinary mortals.
This article was first published on Aug. 28, 2015.