Cinema’s Top 10 Super Spies

With the release of the Total Recall reboot last week, and the fourth installment of the Bourne franchise out tomorrow, a list ranking the most outstanding movie super-spies seems entirely fitting.  And we’re not talking about run-of-the-mill, back-room Tinker Tailor bullshit, here, no: we’re talking SUPER-spies!  Spies that hang from ceilings, shoot poison darts, and double-gun enemies whilst sliding backwards down a snow embankment, that’s where we’re going today!  The last year or so has been generous in this regard, and has offered up more spy flicks (super-spy and otherwise) than one can shake a martini at!  Aside from the aforementioned Bourne and Recall flicks, there’s also been Hannah, Salt, and Columbiana, something that hasn’t exactly left a glut in the genre.   And this is a good thing, especially in these trying times, for these films rarely wrap by killing off their tough-as-shit secret agent heroes, allowing audience members to freely watch with wide-eyed abandon: unburdened by concerns that their fantasy might end badly.  And that’s what these gruesome celebrations of pain and mayhem are for, after all, to give the ordinary pencil-pushers of the world a peak at a more exciting life, one populated by tight situations, fast women, and fancy gadgets.

Today’s list ranked the top 10 movie super-spies, and ordered the selections based on that character’s proficiency in hand-to-hand combat, weapons use, vehicle familiarity, social maneuverability, field experience, and on-screen effectiveness.  Indeed, these are all crucial components for any successful company man (or woman), for a spy is nothing if they can’t fight, fire any weapon they come across, drive anything with wheels or wings, screw their way out of a problem, and/or draw back on a wealth of experience to successfully manage any given dilemma.  Agents from all nationalities were included in the consideration pool for possible inclusion, though the character had to be just that: an agent.  Commandos, one-man-armies, police, private eyes (sorry Charlie: no Angels), or independent assassins were not included, for all represented their own separate ranking categories.  No, to make the cut today, the person in question had to be, or at one time have been, a trained, fully operational international proxy for a government agency (i.e., C.I.A., K.G.B., S.A.S., etc.).  To keep things balanced, any comic book-based films were eliminated from contention wholesale, for pretty much every movie of that ilk has a secret agent of some sort, and most of them would kill the shit out of the honorable lot below.  As mentioned earlier, however, there was a deep pool from which to draw when it came to selecting the top 10 movie spies, so deep, in fact that some entirely worthy spies films such as Ipcress File, The Recruit, I Spy, Spy Game, Spy Hard, The Manchurian Candidate, Munich, Austin Powers, Get Smart, Johnny English, The Tourist, and If Looks Could Kill didn’t even make the cut!  In any event…

10.) Chuck Barris from Confessions of a Dangerous Mind –

Smuggled into this list because of your author’s long-standing admiration of this film (and regret that it didn’t do better when released ten years ago), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind sported a C.I.A.-endorsed operative with more than enough pop, flash, and sizzle to make up for his lack of practical field experience.  In the film, Sam Rockwell played Chuck Barris, the 1960’s and 70’s game show visionary who later wrote an autobiography detailing his work as a government assassin.  The directorial debut of George Clooney, who also co-starred as Barris’ C.I.A. contact, Confessions was a film as layered and complex as its main character (much the point), a boon for its standing amongst film critics, yet something of a liability for a mass-market picture.  The juxtaposition of visually loud, period-specific sets and costumes appropriate to the period against cold, sterile outdoor scenes brought the audience into the muddled, bi-polar world of celebrity-super-spy, Barris, whose journey through international intrigue and pop culture acclaim spun the man’s universe nearly out of control.  Supposing (as the film did) that Barris wasn’t crazy, and that he had in fact been trained as a spy-on-loan, he actually did alright!  Sure, he wasn’t the classic, multi-lingual, weapons-proficient operative most people have come to expect from such a character, but multiple operations oversees that left his ass mostly intact spoke to Barris’ innate skill for the work, as he was up against other, more seasoned spies, and ultimately came out on top (and with a book and movie deal!).  Though she survived, and was indeed a better hitter, this next woman wasn’t anywhere near this fortunate…

9.) “Nikita” from Le Femme Nikita –

Nikita wasn’t Luc Besson’s first film (not by a long shot), but it was definitely his most important, and set a tonal and thematic pulse that would reverberate through the rest of the director’s work.  In the movie, “Nikita” (Anne Parillaud) was a thieving junky who’d killed a cop during a chaotic, cluster-fuck robbery gone wrong.  Nikita went to prison, was abducted by the government, and was told that she would either be working for them as a covert agent or pushing up daisies.  Scrappy little firebrand that she was, Nikita resisted at first, only to eventually realize that there were worse things in the world than getting full-bore government assassin training.  The French gave Nikita intense hand-to-hand and weapons training, along with etiquette and elocution lessons to help her hone more primal skills for use in the field.  Though a little unsure of herself and rough around the edges, Nikita’s coming out party (the restaurant assassination) proved that the training had been put to good use, something later sleeper-cell missions proved beyond a reasonable doubt.  Still, she only had what appeared to be a few months of training, and a very brisk initiation into the world of international espionage.  For a more seasoned, well-rounded agent, we ought to turn to…

8.) “Jack Ryan” from The Hunt for Red October, et al –

Though Mr. Ford’s seminal film character, “Indiana Jones,” certainly came to mind when tossing ideas around for this list (the 4th installment confirmed that he had been working as an agent for the government), the “Jack Ryan” character, before, during, and after Harrison’s Ford’s tenure, seemed a better candidate.  Just as courageous and travelled as Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan had all of the analytical and bureaucratic traits befitting an international man of mystery.  Over the course of four separate films, with three different leads, Ryan proved time and again that he could go anywhere, at any time, and untangle/solve any pressing end-of-the-world crisis that developed.  Sure, though he could definitely handle himself in a fight, he was hardly a powerhouse in this regard, and while he could handle a gun, he didn’t seem especially skilled with them either.  No, where Ryan excelled was on the mental battlefield, where his quick thinking, historical knowledge, and finely-tuned tactical reasoning could be put to good use.  Indeed, what made Jack Ryan so dangerous wasn’t his ability to fight, but rather his habit of working his way out of a problem so he didn’t have to.  Still, though, as a C.I.A.-trained operative with plenty of on-the-ground experience in Russia, South America, England, and the North Atlantic, Ryan had a resume and win percentage that put him comfortably in this discussion.  Coincidentally, this next character was played by an actor who starred in Jack Ryan’s first cinematic rendering, The Hunt for Red October, where he played a character nearly as formidable as…

7.) “John Mason” from The Rock –

Sean Connery’s mere presence on this planet should be a stiff kick to the ego of any 30 or 40-something male who thinks they’ve got an excuse for being an uninspired loser.  In The Rock, Connery played SAS captain and former MI6 operative “John Mason,” a man so salty and grizzled that thirty years chained up in solitary confinement only made him harder.  In the film, he was supposedly a British secret agent that got snagged at the Canadian border following a dicey mission to steal secret F.B.I. blackmail files for Queen and country.  Held without trial for the better part of thirty years, minus a quick vacation when he escaped from Alcatraz in ’63, Mason emerged from government custody as ready to rock as ever.  Given only a day or two to shake off the rust, Mason was back in action with a Navy S.E.A.L. team and a lab rat at the ripe old age of 60-something, and proved that he could still run and gun with the best of them.  The Rock gave Mason a number of opportunities to work on his foes with guns, knives, and his bare goddamned hands, yet it never gave him much of a forum to play with gadgets of vehicles.  Sure, he tore ass through downtown San Francisco after he nicked a Humvee, yet who wouldn’t if given a similar opportunity?  Hell, it’s not like he got away.  Yet it wasn’t really his fault.  If given a prequel that showcased all the wild shit a young John Mason was getting into prior to his imprisonment, it seems certain that all of this would have been fleshed out further, and put him in a position to edge past…

6.) “Derek Flint” from Our Man Flint, et al –

“Austin Powers” (Mike Myers) nearly made it into the ranking before more consideration was lent to the Flint franchise, and James Coburn’s seminal role.  Indeed, the Austin Powers series was essentially a remake of the Flint franchise, where a suave super-spy battled a nefarious criminal ring intent on ruling the world.  Instead of one super-villain, Flint faced a trio, however, a group mad scientists known as “Galaxy,” who wanted to use their weather-control device to blackmail the world’s governments into submission.  Flint came out of retirement from his agency, Z.O.W.I.E. (Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage) to track down and defeat “Galaxy” in a series of vignettes embarrassingly similar to what was seen in the 1st Austin Powers installment (super-weapon blackmail, bathroom stall ambush, femme-bots, etc.), something that might have come off as parody if Our Man Flint wasn’t itself a tongue-in-cheek send up of the wildly popular super-spy genre of the 1960’s.  Yet at least the rip-off came from an honest place, for Derek Flint super-spied like nobody’s business.  Like some kind of post-crack-cocaine Charlie Sheen, Flint only rolled around with a gaggle of women (one simply wasn’t enough), and had the technical, physical, and mental assets to survive multiple close-calls with his opposition.  A second installment in the franchise (In Like Flint) colored in the man’s superior pedigree further, and only set the stage for future action-comedy espionage thrillers, like this next one…

5.) “Harry Tasker” from True Lies –

One of the last really good pure action films from Schwarzenegger’s late-80’s/early-90’s catalogue, True Lies hit all the right marks, both for a film of its genre and this list.  The classic double-life super-spy, Schwarzenegger’s “Harry” was physically immaculate yet still cunning enough to fool his family about his real work.  Supposedly a computer salesman, Harry actually worked for the clandestine U.S. anti-terrorism agency “Omega Sector,” whose operatives seemed to have free reign to engage in running gun battles with suspects on crowded city streets or even more crowded public shopping malls.  This kind of leeway was understandable, however, for Harry proved right off the bat that he was a man who could handle his game.  During the chateau escape at the beginning of the film, Harry dropped moving targets (they were on skis!) using a handgun with the same level of skill that most would demonstrate using a super-soaker against a foe two feet away.  When he sprung himself and wifey later on in the picture after their capture, this guy was flipping AK-47’s into his hands and double-gunning terrorist swine like he was baking a fucking cake.  More than capable in a knock-down, drag-out fight (see the mall bathroom tussle for evidence there), Harry definitely knew how to take care of himself.  Shown to be especially handy behind the wheel of a car (parking that corvette), Harry also seemed entirely capable of operating and flying a Harrier AV-8B after some asshole terrorists scooped up his daughter.  Speaking of which, this next guy also came right the hell to life once his daughter was snatched up, something terrorists and kidnappers should take note of when fucking with super-spies…

4.) “Bryan Mills” from Taken –

On a personal mission because some Euro trash made the mistake of fucking with his baby girl, “Bryan Mills” (Liam Neeson) from Taken definitely knew what time it was.  Working private security for some pop singer at the beginning of the film, gravy gigs like this definitely didn’t dull the man’s skills, nor did it slow him down when the time came to kick some ass.  Given just a handful of seconds to speak with his daughter before her kidnapping, Bryan had everything he needed to get his ass in-country, and down to business.  Referred to at one point as an ex-C.I.A. hard-ass, the man’s training and experience leading bone-breaking globe-trots put Bryan in a good position to shake down the scum who’d put together the kidnapping.  As far as this list’s criteria, the man was nearly unapproachable; handy with weapons (he put a pill in some dude’s head who was holding his daughter as a body shield), awesome behind the wheel (multiple downtown Paris car chases), connected to the city’s law enforcement body (he had a cop buddy), and absolutely, positively un-fucking-stoppable when on a mission, Bryan was the real deal.  Seriously!  This guy was chained up to a fucking pipe, with a gun on him, and he still managed to not just break free, but also beat the life out of the idiot dumb enough to have taken a run at him.  An absolute whirlwind of pain and terror, Bryan Mills had everything this list’s super-spy criteria was looking for, except maybe a few more sequels to build an even stronger case…

3.) “Ethan Hunt” from Mission: Impossible, et al –

A master of misdirection, disguise, hand-to-hand combat, weapons usage, and international espionage, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than “Ethan Hunt” (Tom Cruise).  Throughout the course of four separate installments, this guy put his nuts in a sling more times than any reasonable man would risk in four lifetimes!  A different breed of bad-ass than most of the agents listed today, Ethan was unique for his habit of finding trouble rather than dealing with it when it found him.  Indeed, most super-spy movies have shown operatives knocked out of their element by some unforeseen set of circumstances: an event that usually forces the character in question to uncase their more polished skills.  The Mission: Impossible series has almost always framed its scenarios around Hunt and his cohorts seeking out trouble in their pursuit of the wildest, most insane capers.  Almost always the predator rather than the prey, Ethan Hunt was one hell of a dangerous man to have on the loose and on your ass.  This was a guy who fucking broke into a secure vault at C.I.A. headquarters for kicks; this was a guy who waltzed right through the front door of the Kremlin, tooled around in the secure archives, then escaped despite a separate bombing and subsequent arrest.   Fluent in every language conceivable, and skilled enough to use that and a deep bag of tech and parlor tricks to slip in and out of every secure location in the world, four movies have only continued to prove that Ethan was among the very best.

2.) “Jason Bourne” from The Bourne Identity, et al –

A tough call, to be sure, yet repeat viewings of installments from the Mission: Impossible and Bourne franchises speak to the decision’s validity, and the merit of one super-spy over the other.  Just as much of a fighter, marksman, wheelman, charmer, and improvisational genius as Ethan Hunt, Bourne (Matt Damon) also had a desperate, almost frightened humanity that seemed to make his feats just a little more impressive.  Always on the run, forever dodging and defeating assassins just as skilled as he (well…almost as skilled), Bourne had to make shit happen on the fly, and that shit had to work well.  Rarely in possession of the surprise element and/or technical advantages Ethan Hunt and his crew always seemed to enjoy, Bourne was at his best when tossed into the middle of a shit-storm.  Whether he was trapped like a rat in a maze like he was during the embassy vignette from #1, running from some dead-behind-the-eyes Russian spook in #2, or dodging sniper rounds at Waterloo Station in #3, the man was always in control when the whole world was tumbling around him.  Creative and fluid in action so that his movements were calculated yet still somehow unpredictable, Bourne could get in and out of any country, thrive there, and sneak up behind you whilst taking a dump before you felt the barrel of the gun he stole from you pressing into the back of your neck.  Technically savvy enough to repeatedly hack into the C.I.A.’s closed-circuit telephone lines, and turn the Agency’s surveillance back around on them, Bourne was as clever as he was physically dangerous.  Yet even an agent as skilled as Bourne had nothing on the master…

1.) “James Bond” from Dr. No, et al –

Faster, smarter, sexier, and more skilled at everything than you are (I don’t care who you are), James Bond was/is the greatest character, fictional or otherwise, to have graced the silver screen with the possible exception of Jesus Christ.  Like Jesus, Bond was something of a human-god hybrid: that once in a millennia miracle that comes along and makes everybody else look like an asshole.  This November’s Skyfall release will mark the 24th installment in the Bond catalogue (if one counts Never Say Never Again, and doesn’t factor in the 1967 Casino Royale), and if two dozen installments have taught the world anything, it’s that James mother fucking Bond is the king-shit movie super-spy.  This guy could have hit a hummingbird flying one hundred yards away whilst driving a tank and seducing a woman…blindfolded.  That’s just how he rolled!  A consummate professional who always put the mission first, Bond still knew how to enjoy himself, and kept him womanizing skills sharpened for any occasion when they were needed (this was actually quite often).  To detail all of the occasions when Bond demonstrated his superior super-spy skills over the course of twenty four pictures would take the better part of a day, so let it suffice to say that the MI6 agent fought harder, longer, and better than any man or woman to have globe-trotted for a high-level government agency.  After all, the man swam with sharks, got in a laser fight in space, engaged in an axe battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, and took the Las Vegas Police Department on the wildest car chase this side of Smokey and the Bandit.  The industry standard against which all other cinematic super-spies are judged, James Bond was so awesome that he even made it into the Olympics, with the Queen!  Recognize.

by Warren Cantrell

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