From James Bond to Jason Bourne, if there’s one thing our culture is obsessed with, it’s spies.
Spy movies have long been a part of cinema — from early Alfred Hitchcock movies to modern interpretations helmed by Tom Cruise.
That fascination with all things secret agent isn’t likely to fade. Just look at continued interest from studios: “Heart of Stone,” starring Gal Gadot, and 2022’s “The 355,” show that Hollywood is still very much invested in the genre.
And so are audiences. So get your best gadgets and shake yourself a martini — here’s the list of all the spy movies you should watch whenever you’re feeling the urge.
‘North by Northwest’ (1959)
Considered by some to be Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest film, “North by Northwest” stars Cary Grant, whose character is mistaken for a government agent and pursued by a spy, played by James Mason.
One could say this is the spy movie that cemented the genre. With rigorous chase scenes, an elegant male lead, and a beautiful love interest who somehow ends up along for the ride, this film is sometimes referred to as “the first Bond film.” With a cheeky ending scene, this is a spy movie that stands the test of time.
Sure, this film may be more screwball rom-com in its essence, but at its core, it’s still a spy movie. Audrey Hepburn, alongside Cary Grant, stars as the widow of a spy who double-crossed his fellow agents, who are now trying to murder her. Romance and hilarity ensue.
The movie is an entertaining whodunit, but it doesn’t lose its suspense, making for an engaging two hours. If you like a love story with your spy flick, this is one for you.
“Goldfinger” isn’t just any Bond film, it’s the Bond film. Though the movie is technically the third film created in the James Bond franchise, it set the tone for the rest of the Bond movies, even the new ones starring Daniel Craig.
In “Goldfinger,” Bond — played by Sean Connery — is investigating an international gold smuggling operation headed by, well, Goldfinger. The film hits all the right Bond notes: pretty women, glamorous international locations and lots of action. But it’s also the film that set that standard. Things that are now common in Bond movies, like the use of technology and the pre-credits sequence, were first implemented in “Goldfinger.” It’s worth seeing how the journey began.
‘Mission: Impossible’ (1996)
This is quite possibly the quintessential spy film, which of course then launched one of the most defining film franchises of the genre. Starring Tom Cruise as a spy with the mission of exposing America’s double agents, this film was criticized by some for both for its convoluted plot and lack of human dimension. It was even criticized by some cast members of the original “Mission: Impossible” television series, with Greg Morris saying simply, “It’s an abomination.”
And still, with an iconic theme song and intense action sequences, the movie endures. It may not be the best spy movie of all time, but the gadgets are fun.
‘Spy Kids’ (2001)
Yes, you read that right. Sure, it’s a family movie that some may consider unserious, but to those we say, think again.
A story about two kids trying to rescue their parents, “Spy Kids” has everything: espionage, estranged family, robots and a sprinkling of Mexican culture. It’s not your average kids movie, boosted by the acting prowesses of Hollywood heavyweights Antonio Banderas, Danny Trejo and Carla Gugino. The story has weight — just look at the three sequels it spawned over the course of a decade, and reboot coming out more than 20 years after the first movie released. There’s just something about the “Spy Kids” world that will keep you coming back for more.
‘The Bourne Identity’ (2002)
Ah, the film that started the famous Bourne franchise and made Matt Damon a worldwide star. This is the type of movie you think of when you think of a spy movie. A man washes up on the coast of France and doesn’t remember who he is? Check. A mysterious safe deposit box with multiple passports and a gun? Check. Crazy martial arts moves, a heart-racing car chase through Paris and an underbaked love story? Check, check and check.
Though he still gave “The Bourne Identity” three out of four stars, Roger Ebert described this movie as “frankly about nothing” and noted that he had to put his brain “on hold.” But sometimes, that’s all you want from a spy movie: No thoughts, just dramatic action sequences and interesting fight scenes. And on that, this delivers.
Five men, one mission: to kill the people involved in Black September’s 1972 terrorist attack that killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team. Though the subject matter is heavy, director Steven Spielberg navigates it deftly, using the film to ask deeper questions about vengeance and nation states. This isn’t like other spy movies, with a formula ripped straight from Bond. Take it from Roger Ebert, who wrote: “As a thriller, “Munich” is efficient, absorbing, effective. As an ethical argument, it is haunting.”
Fun fact: this film was originally meant for Tom Cruise, but was later rewritten to feature Angelina Jolie. And the movie is worthy of a superstar lead, following a CIA agent who is accused of being a Russian spy.
This movie is worth it if only for Jolie’s stunts, most of which she performed herself. The actual plot may leave a little to be desired, but it is, according to Roger Ebert, “a damn fine thriller.” What else could you want?
‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ (2011)
There’s a Russian mole embedded in the depths of MI6, the British secret intelligence service, and George Smiley, solemnly played by Gary Oldman, has been brought out of retirement in order to find them.
The film is an anti-spy movie of sorts. You won’t find car chases here. No exotic international locations; no elaborate fight scenes. The walls are shades of beige and the men are withered. There’s violence and tragedy and loneliness. And still, according to The Guardian, the film is “more gripping and involving than any crash-bang action picture.”
Admit it, the second you saw this name you heard Adele croon: “Let the sky faaaaalllllll.” We know, we know. But Adele’s excellent vocals aside, “Skyfall” is the highest-grossing Bond film for good reason.
If “Goldfinger” set the standard for Bond movies, “Skyfall” perfected them. Starring Daniel Craig (our favorite Bond, if you ask us), this film sees Bond investigating a series of server hacks and data leaks within MI6. But fear not — this digital crime still packs an action punch. There’s car chases, international locales, vintage cars, expensive suits, fun gadgets and a steamy shower scene to top things off. If you need a film to get you into the genre, make it this one.
‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ (2014)
If Bond movies were funny and just a touch over the top, you’d get “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” Starring Colin Firth and Taron Egerton, this first installment in the Kingsman film series sees a veteran spy (Firth) and new recruit (Egerton) tasked with saving the world from an eco-terrorist wanting to combat climate change by getting rid of most of humanity (for Marvel fans, this may ring a bell).
But this movie is not necessarily for the faint of heart. The violence and gore in this movie may not be for everyone. Upon the film’s release, The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis said of director Matthew Vaughn: “He’s developed into an adequate if often generic manager of action and bodies, but his real talent is for delivering extreme violence with a shrug and a smile.” Still, the plot is engaging and the film is well-acted. Watch with caution.
Maybe you never pictured Melissa McCarthy as CIA field agent, and neither has her character in this Paul Feig-directed action comedy. But when Susan Cooper (McCarthy) finds herself to be the most qualified person to track a stolen nuclear device, she steps up.
If you want a bit of a laugh with your spy tropes, this is the film for you. McCarthy shines in this comedic role, delivering on every level. Variety even called it “funniest, most versatile and sustained comic showcase of (McCarthy’s) movie career.” But, with the likes of Jude Law and Jason Statham in the mix, the film still has all the action fun.
‘Atomic Blonde’ (2017)
This film is technically about a spy, played by Charlize Theron, whose mission is tracking down a list of double agents.
But really, the movie is a hyper-stylized pedestal for Theron to shine. She’s an action star, and this is the role that puts that on full display. With numerous fight scenes — including one where she downs a man with her stiletto — and a sexy scene with another agent, you’re sure to stay entranced. And the director, David Leitch, is a former stunt double who co-directed the first “John Wick” movie, so you know you’re in for a good time.
‘Spies in Disguise’ (2019)
Hear us out on this one. Yes, this is an animated movie meant for children. Yes, it has voices by Will Smith and Tom Holland. And yes, it’s about a secret agent that accidentally gets turned into a bright, blue pigeon.
Before you write this recommendation off, know that “Spies in Disguise” is a spy movie through and through. There are secret concoctions and an evil terrorist out for revenge via drones; an opening fight scene and a nerdy side-kick. And all still appropriate enough to watch with your kids. It’s — dare we say it? — fun for the whole family.
‘The 355’ (2022)
Jessica Chastain, Penélope Cruz, Fan Bingbing, Diane Kruger and Lupita Nyong’o walk into a bar… and you get this movie.
Essentially an “Ocean’s 8”-esque remake of every mediocre male-led spy movie, this tale follows a group of female spies from different countries coming together to stop World War III. The story has been criticized as bland, with Empire saying “You just wish the story had been as innovative as the casting, and the twists less screamingly obvious to even those without secret-agent training.” This may be true. But if what you want is a bit of spy fun served by some of the most famous actresses working today, this is it.