What makes a good spy? Is it a cunning mind able to think outside the box? Perhaps a willingness to embark on dangerous missions? Or is it the ability to get the job done with a touch of class?
The following bunch of onscreen espionage artists are versed in all of the above. Taking down nefarious organisations and risking life and limb for the greater good is what they do best — with particular attention paid to their unabashed cool. Nothing stands in their way when it comes to going to work in style.
20. Bridget von Hammersmark
As seen in: Inglourious Basterds (2009)
When it comes to toppling Hitler’s regime, nothing is out of the question for Bridget Von Hammersmark. The German movie star employs her fame to masquerade as a double agent. Who would guess that a screen beauty was helping British forces bring down the Nazi high command?
What’s even more admirable is her commitment to the role. She remains in character and unwavering when retrieving the intel she requires; casually drawing from her cigarette without drawing attention to her ruse. Moreover, it’s she who cooks up the entire assassination scheme known as Operation Kino in the first place.
19. T.R. Devlin
As seen in: Notorious (1946)
Alfred Hitchcock recognised Cary Grant’s loveable rogue persona when casting him as Notorious and chose to subvert that image for the role of T.R. Devlin, an American agent with more than a passing resemblance to another tuxedo-wearing spy.
Devlin recruits the daughter of a Nazi spy with an eye to her infiltrating a sect of Brazilian war criminals and charms his way into her good graces. It’s no surprise — he’s impeccably dressed at all times and carries an air of mystery about him that’s damn-near magnetic. A frosty cat on the outside, he thaws out during the film’s legendary kiss. Ingrid Bergman’s femme never saw that coming.
18. John and Jane Smith
As seen in: Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005)
Love conquers all for John and Jane Smith in more ways than one. Their dwindling marriage is zapped back to life when they discover their true identities: both are skilled assassins commissioned to eliminate the other.
Houses are destroyed and hits are botched. That’s not the concern for this pair whose panache for quick-fire barbs and amusing innuendo make the spy game out to be a fun, if a little dangerous, road to reconciliation. Bullets and blood may be the best aphrodisiac.
17. Ilsa Faust
As seen in: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
Resilient and headstrong, Ilsa Faust won’t be deterred from the task at hand — in this case, a lot of double-crossing — by anyone. That includes Ethan Hunt. As an Mi6 operative whose loyalties are tried and tested time and time again she’s an unstoppable force.
Her acrobatic fighting style and keen powers of manipulation allow her to remain calm under pressure. Its her wide breadth of skills that makes her stand out; when she’s not kitted out in floor-length gowns wiping the floor with goons, she’s bombing around the dusty Moroccan streets on a motorbike. All without losing her cool.
16. Mallory Kane
As seen in: Haywire (2012)
Transforming MMA fighter Gina Carano into a lethal weapon for Haywire is one of Steven Soderbergh’s most inventive moves. Mallory Kane is a former marine now working as a government black ops assassin. Left in the dark — to better enable her undercover lifestyle — she handily switches alliances when her employers turn the tables on her.
First and foremost Mallory is driven by a strong desire to right the wrongs done to her, through exploiting the knowledge she has acquired over the years. That impressive skill set includes a wealth of combat experience, makes her male opponents (Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender) look entirely unprepared for battle.
15. Harry Tasker
As seen in: True Lies (1994)
Tasker’s got it all. A knockout wife and a badass job… that she has no clue about. By day he schlubs along as a husband with little ambition, happy to hit the road as a traveling computer salesman. What’s commendable about Harry’s spy status is just how long he’s managed to keep it secret. His spouse has no idea of his true livelihood.
He sheds his humdrum office ruse and kicks butt as an operative in the government’s counter-terrorist task force, The Omega Sector. Delivering one-liners left right and centre, riding horses into elevators and keeping his tango skills in check, the endless havoc that surrounds him proves his worth. He’s got deception down to a fine, if cheesy, art.
As seen in: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Maya is cut from a different cloth to many other entrants on this list. Her skills aren’t showcased in action-packed fights or tricky death-defying feats. Where she excels is in the details. All those muscled operatives out getting all the glory? Wouldn’t be where they are if it weren’t for her focused dedication.
Nothing stops her from pursuing every lead and scrutinising each piece of intel that might lead her to Osama Bin Laden, despite the doubts of her superiors. Her bravura made all the more cool by her sailor mouth and those aviators.
As seen in: Ronin (1998)
Often celebrated for the technical brilliance of its kinetic car chases, Ronin also includes a stellar performance by Robert De Niro as Irish assassin Sam, who along with two of his ex-special forces comrades is tasked with retrieving a secret briefcase from a bunch of criminals.
Along the way his alliances change and a revelatory last act turn casts him in a different light (SPOILER: he’s actually a CIA agent). Nevertheless, his ruthlessness when it comes to getting his man is without question. And tracking an ice skater with a sniper rifle? Takes the biscuit.
12. Bryan Mills
As seen in: Taken 1, 2 and 3
Mills gave Liam Neeson’s career a kickstart. Armed with a “special set of skills” this ex-CIA man is no normal spy. For starters, he’s driven by something other than the direction of a shady employer: he’s tracking down his kidnapped daughter.
None of his opponents stand a chance. He oozes confidence, proven by the casual way he’ll dish out one-liners before kicking ass, and he has no remorse whatsoever. A fist to the face or a bullet to the brain, it’s all the same to Mills who seems to hardly break a sweat taking out a roomful of attackers.