This article is sponsored by the upcoming movie Anna.
The Cold War may be long over, but espionage is making a comeback. Every day brings new details of spy rings in capitals, and commanders-in-chief welcoming the aid of foreign intelligence to win elections, but on the big screen the thrall of spooks has never been long dormant. For instance, this month brings the release of Anna, the latest Luc Besson-directed action movie about women spies who can kick some serious ass. Only this Russian supermodel turned superspy does it all herself, like the best of them. As played by real-life model Sasha Luss, the eponymous spy comes to Paris in this movie claiming to be working a fashionable job, yet the business she is really in is dressing to kill.
Anna follows a long tradition of female operatives standing against the world and using methods both noble and decidedly not to achieve her ends—the kind that often leave a trail of bodies in her wake. And as the archetype has evolved, it’s been embraced, subverted, and deepened. Nevertheless, there are some spies who stand above the rest. Here are 11 of them.
Lorraine Broughton, Atomic Blonde (2017)
One of the great recent big screen spies came in deadly form with Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde. A knotty Cold War-set thriller about spy games in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, it’s best remembered two years later for Charlize Theron further confirming her action star bonafides as an MI6 agent who takes crap from no one.
The week that the Berlin Wall falls, Theron’s Lorraine is sent to West Germany to discover why a fellow British agent, and ex-lover, turned up dead. She is given ostensible support by James McAvoy’s David Percival, but considering how highly caffeinated he comes across (not to mention toxic), it’s obvious Lorraine will have to rely on her own wits to unpack a murder mystery that will ultimately take her well behind Soviet lines. Along the way, she proves to be as coldly promiscuous as 007, seducing a French operative (Sofia Boutella) to pass the time, and kicking as much ass as John Wick.
Indeed, directed by David Leitch (one of the two helmers on the first John Wick movie), the picture reveals Theron handling dizzying action and stunts on par with that earlier film in extensively violent long-takes. Thus she becomes the ultimate badass spy: brutal, brazen, and blonde.
Ilsa Faust, Mission: Impossible (2015-present)
Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust was introduced in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation but she didn’t stay there. As the first major female lead in the series to recur as more than a cameo, it’s for good reason fans demanded more of Ilsa. Every bit as capable as Ethan Hunt and far better at playing double agent mind games, she can keep everyone guessing. In fact, she was introduced as a morally ambiguous frenemy in Rogue Nation (think Catwoman or comic book Black Widow), but nevertheless was able to steal the show. Compelling without being as arch as other characters around her, including grinning farmboy Ethan, there is an implied complexity always at work behind Ilsa’s hunter green eyes. Plus, she looks fierce in a high society gown and accessories—in which she even as she has the good sense to always take off her heels before a fight!
Ilsa is named after a Casablanca character, but we’ll remember her for more than just Paris. Returning again to the side of the angels–but with a sense of unknowability—in 2018’s masterful Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Ferguson has cemented herself as one of the franchise’s most valuable players and is already confirmed to return in writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s next two M:I films.
Alicia Huberman, Notorious (1946)
Speaking of Casablanca, that film’s original Ilsa made an iconic spy herself in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. A more somber thriller from the post-WWII era, Ingrid Bergman played the ultimate honeypot, one who feels compelled to serve American intelligence after her father is convicted of being a Nazi spy. Recruited for morally dubious work by Cary Grant’s Devlin, their unwise romantic dalliance is repaid with the unpleasant assignment of Alicia being forced to infiltrate a Nazi ring hiding in South America. There she is able to convince Claude Rains’ hiding war criminal to marry her.
She certainly redeems her family name, but the risks become very high for this grounded classic thriller. As it turns out, Rains is a pussycat, but his mother? Played by Leopoldine Konstantin, she is just all sorts of yikes as the mother-in-law from hell and is responsible for the most intimidating shot of a coffee cup in movie history. Also fun fact: this classic was unofficially remade into a mediocre action movie with… Mission: Impossible II, which featured Thandie Newton in the Alicia role and Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt as a much more proactive version of Devlin.
Black Widow, Marvel Movies (2010-present)
And then, of course, there’s Scarlett Johansson’s Russian spy turned Marvel superhero. Barely Russian or a spy by the time she’s fighting Chitauri space aliens in The Avengers, the Black Widow is still a former ballerina turned killer and SHIELD agent. We admit though that she is probably best remembered for being Johansson’s stoic entry point into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but she’s unfortunately mostly relegated to the background… before being refrigerated to further justify Hawkeye’s man-pain in Avengers: Endgame. Sigh. Maybe she’ll finally get her due in a solo movie due out next year.
Dominika Egorova, Red Sparrow (2018)
Much more the Russian assassin and retired ballet dancer is Jennifer Lawrence’s spook in Red Sparrow. Once the star of Russia’s highest art-form, she loses everything due to the treachery of a rival. But when Dominika goes Black Swan on the replacement who stole her life, she sets herself up to be blackmailed into a career of espionage by her leering uncle.
Nevertheless, Dominika ends up being a better spymaster than any of them. She is mostly sought to be controlled for her beauty and sexuality by the aforementioned uncle, and sent into the field to seduce Joel Edgerton’s Nate Nash. However, she winds up playing American and Russian officers off each other, and the audience along the way, all while insulates herself at the happy intersection of paranoia and ambiguity. The film has problematic issues, but as a whole it is a refreshingly grounded spy thriller in an era where it really does feel like the Cold War is thawing—complete with a real-life Manchurian Candidate. And in any case, Lawrence’s beguiling Dominika is no one to be trifled with.
Sydney Bristow, Alias (2001-2006)
Sometimes the best spies just fall into the role. Sydney Bristow thought she had a job as a CIA agent working for a special unit called SD-6. When she discovers that SD-6 is not part of the CIA but rather the evil Alliance of Twelve, Sydney sees an opportunity. She offers her services as a double agent to the (real) CIA and then soon comes to find out that double-agent-ing runs in the family.
The sprawling world and mythology of Alias requires a lot of its lead character. Thankfully, Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow was always up for the task. Sydney is a chameleon, always fitting in to the scenario that the spying situation requires. Then, should that situation turn south, she is also blessed with some superior combat skills.
Nikita, La Femme Nikita (1990)
La Femme Nikita is the movie that made writer-director Luc Besson’s career. It’s also a classic in its own right, thanks in large part to Anne Parillaud as Nikita. She’s a nihilistic, teenage junkie who goes to prison after murdering a police officer. But she gets a second chance at life after the government fakes her death and turns her into a femme fatale assassin. France’s most promising killer, she offs diplomats and infiltrates embassies, and most of all spearheaded the ‘90s wave of French thrillers.
Mathilda, Léon (1994)
In a similar vein is Natalie Portman’s star-making role in Luc Besson’s follow-up, Léon (The Professional in the U.S.). Not a spy and barely an assassin, Portman’s pint-sized anti-heroine still thirsts for vengeance after her family is murdered by untouchable cops, led by a scenery-chewing Gary Oldman, who’s never been nastier than here.
Thus Portman’s Mathilda barely evades slaughter by pleading for a last-minute save from her sweet French neighbor, Jean Reno’s Léon. And as it turns out, Léon’s day job is he’s an assassin! What luck! After much convincing, Mathilda even gets a crash course in “cleaning” houses with blood, helping Léon assassinate bad men. It’s still disturbing stuff when 12-year-old Portman is shown how to use a sniper rifle by the hitman, and then goes door-to-door as the doe-eyed doorbell-ringer that gets gangsters to look outside… unknowingly inviting Léon and his guns in.
More disturbing still is how Mathilda becomes infatuated with Léon, which in the post-#MeToo era feels increasingly like a problematic and uncomfortable fantasy played mostly for laughs. But it is still Portman’s first great performance and remains unnervingly compelling today.
Anya Amasova, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
The first female spy presented as 007’s equal, Barbara Bach’s Major Amasova (aka Agent XXX) remains the best in the series. While the third act gives her little to do, she gets the better of Bond on multiple occasions. One particular highlight involves her inducing Bond to surrender a piece of microfilm MacGuffin they both spend half the movie chasing. He might have gotten his hands on it last, but she uses his general thirstiness to knock his tuxedoed ass out and wind up with the ultimate prize.
Presented as learned and urbane as 007—complete with being entirely overdressed in evening wear when they’re forced to hitchhike their way through an Egyptian desert—Anya deserved more to do than wait for him to save her after they’re both captured by the villain in the third act. Nevertheless, she was the first Bond Girl to have her own autonomy and feel like more than a prize to be won. She even gets the drop on Bond one last time at the end and chooses to spare his life, even though she knows he killed her ex-lover. She also inspired the best Bond song ever recorded, “Nobody Does It Better.”
Wai Lin, Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Michelle Yeoh proved to be a much more formidable assassin when it came to offing enemies in this Pierce Brosnan era Bond movie. A Chinese spy who could run circles around her capitalist, English counterpart, Wai Lin deserved a better movie but she still brought Yeoh’s martial arts prowess and grace to Western cinema for the first time. She would go on to star in better Western films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Crazy Rich Asians, and here she was depicted as physically more fit and dangerous than 007.
She also got to kill someone with a throwing star, which is pretty neat by our standards.
Elizabeth Jennings, The Americans (2013-2018)
The Americans is one of pop culture’s all-time best spy stories and Keri Russell’s Elizabeth Jennings is a big part of that. A good spy is nothing if not dedicated and very few characters in fiction are more dedicated than Nadezhda a.k.a. Elizabeth Jennings. Elizabeth was born in the U.S.S.R. and alongside a copatriot named Mischa, embarked upon a truly ambitious feat of espionage.
Mischa and Nadezhda relocated to America to live out their lives as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings – two mild-mannered travel agents living in the District of Columbia. Together they built a family together with two kids, a big house in the suburbs, and hockey practices galore. Philip and Elizabeth are co-equal parents and co-equal spies but as the femme fatale of the duo, Elizabeth is charged with a lot of the less savory missions. And she is always up for them. Through gunshots, honeypots, and some truly atrocious wigs, Elizabeth did everything a spy can do to defeat those vile Americans at their own game.
So there you have it: Eleven of the greatest women assassins to grace the screen.
Catch Anna in theaters everywhere as on June 21!