Moves, countermoves, betrayal, redemption, close calls, plot twists and a whole lot of tension. If you like not knowing what the hell is going on or who is trying to backstab who until the final second, then spy movies are the genre for you. And if you’re in the mood to go undercover, these spy movies on Netflix have you, well, covered.
Here Are the Top Ten Spy Movies on Netflix
From the War on Terror to the Cold War to World War II, spy movies on Netflix cover decades of world history, both real and entirely made up. Starting with #1 (but in no particular order):
1. Body of Lies – 2008 (R)
Like many post-9/11 thrillers, Body of Lies, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, and the not-quite-arrived-yet Mark Strong, relies on a lot of fancy technological jargon. Unfortunately, relying on it as a crutch can leave you with a weak film. However, director Ridley Scott knows how to wield his talented cast. Because of this, the film successfully weaves in the tech the audience craves and still delivers a satisfying journey.
DiCaprio is a CIA operative that hatches an audacious plot. Invent a fictitious terrorist organization to catch the head of a real terrorist organization. He’s aided in his sort of off the books work by his CIA handler, Russell Crowe. DiCaprio also has Mark Strong, head of Jordanian security as an ally in his quest. Eager to catch terrorists, DiCaprio orchestrates the plan with precision, but along the way, real people pay the price for his hubris. Seeing the suffering he’s causing, he begins to question how far is too far in the war on terror. There’s also plenty of action, moral quandaries, and mounting tension as the characters struggle to stay alive as things spin out of control.
2. Mission: Impossible – 1996 (PG-13)
Yes, you’re reading that correctly. They’ve been making Mission: Impossible movies for 22 years now and for good reason: They’re freaking awesome! From the James Bond gizmos to the over the top fight scenes to the top-notch choice in bad guys, Mission: Impossible will get your adrenaline pumping. It will also make you wonder if you can ever trust anyone ever again.
The movie begins with a botched rescue that results in the death of Tom Cruise’s entire team (it ain’t called Mission: Difficult). Being as he’s the only survivor and his bosses at the Impossible Missions Force know there’s a mole, naturally, they suspect Cruise. Cruise escapes to prove his innocence and so begins a rollercoaster of action, hi-tech awesomeness, and doublecrossing that is riveting to the very end. And let’s be honest: any movie that can make the Scooby Doo pulling-off-the-mask gag that impressive is worth the watch.
The inclusion of the massive Ving Rhames playing 100 percent against type as a computer hacker was pure genius and (spoilers) Jon Voight turning evil was a brutal blow. It undoubtedly was a plot twist no one saw coming and that’s kind of the point of a spy movie: Trust no one…
3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – 2011 (R)
If the first word that comes to mind when you’re in the mood for a good spy movie is “labyrinthine”, first, congratulations on having an excellent vocabulary, and, second, welcome to the Cold War. Set in 1973 London, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is unrelenting in its mood and storyline. London is not the cheeriest place in the world to begin with but toss in a raging war between rival spy organizations, and it becomes downright oppressive. Based on the book which spawned a popular six-hour mini-series, TTSS squeezes an awful lot of plot into a relatively brief amount of time. Much like real spycraft, this is a movie that demands your full attention. Blink and you’ll miss something important.
Sporting a star-studded cast (John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Gary Oldman), the film is not “fun” to watch like most of the other movies on this list. It doesn’t have a lot of action scenes, no fancy tech (your iPhone has more computing power than the entire 1973 KGB), no martial arts brawls. It’s a quiet, tense, nerve-wracking film that demands you pay attention and use your brain. Or the Commies will get ya…
4. Burn After Reading – 2008 (R)
Is all the spy vs. spy stuff getting a little too serious for you? How about some spy vs. idiot? Burn After Reading is a farce in pretty much every sense of the word by the Coen brothers. If you love Raising Arizona for the quirky characters and nonsensical plot, you’re in for a treat. With a couple of nitwits (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) running around trying to sell secrets to the Russians while being chased by the angry ex-CIA operative (John Malkovich) whose secrets they stumbled across, the movie is ripe for humor.
Pitt, McDormand, and Malkovitch lead an ensemble cast of all-star lunatics through this dark comedy of errors and murder. George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, J.K. Simmons, and David Rasche join in the fun as everyone plays an angle, gets caught up in improbable coincidences, and not a few people wind up dead. Pitt, in particular, seems to have way too much fun playing a doofus instead of his usual ultra-serious role and he’s drop-dead funny. Was that a spoiler? You’ll have to watch to find out.
5. Inglourious Basterds – 2009 (R)
Part bloodbath, part spy thriller, Inglourious Basterds brings us World War II as only Quentin Tarantino can: beautifully violent with a heaping dish of revenge. Brad Pitt is back in serious mode giving one of the single greatest monologues about Nazis in Hollywood history. Christopher Waltz redefines what it means to be a Nazi rat bastard, and it is useful to know that IG is not in any way based in the real world. No spoilers but WWII ends very differently here than it did in real life.
If you’re a fan of Tarantino, you know that he can keep you guessing about who’s stabbing who in the back until the last second. And even when you know someone is a double agent (I’m looking at you, Mr. Orange), watching them struggle to keep their cover can be just as nerve-wracking as not knowing their true allegiance. Will they pull it off? Are they going to make it out alive? But since this is a Tarantino film, you know vengeance is going to be served even if no one survives the final massacre.
6. The Imitation Game – 2014 (PG-13)
The Imitation Game isn’t quite a spy movie in the sense that the main character, Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), doesn’t run around beating up Nazis or exposing secret agents. He does, however, build the world’s first computer and crack the Nazi’s infamous “Enigma” code, allowing the Allies to successfully spy on the Nazis for years before the war ended. It’s not Mission: Impossible but it’s real and that makes the stakes in the movie feel that much higher.
The real meat of the movie is watching Cumberbatch navigate a world he doesn’t fully understand and is almost entirely incapable of understanding him. Aside from being a next level genius that continually frustrates his military boss Charles Dance (Game of Thrones’ unlamented Tywin Lannister) as well as his colleagues, Alan Turing is also a homosexual, a “crime” in 1940’s Britain. He even enters into a shame engagement with fellow genius Keira Knightley to hide his homosexuality but to no avail. The movie actually begins with Turing being arrested for being gay (after being a war hero), and anyone familiar with his story knows that being outed ruined his life. It lends the film the air of tragedy even though it tries to end on a hopeful note.
7. Spy Kids – 2001 (PG)
Not all of the spy movies on Netflix are super gritty or super silly. Some can just be a fun romp for the family and Spy Kids finds that sweet spot between the two extremes. Managing to poke fun at spy movie conventions without tipping over into satire, Spy Kids is a great way to introduce younger children to your love of action-packed spy movies without traumatizing them with a double-digit body count.
Carla Gugino and Antonio Banderas are retired super spies who are called back into action for one final mission and go missing. Their kids, unaware that their parents are Mr. and Mrs. Bond, find out the truth and that all the “exercise” their parents have had them doing their entire lives has actually been combat training. They go off on their adventure and save the day.
Spy Kids is also notable because, for a major movie franchise (4 movies, several video games, and a new animated series), the characters are unapologetically Latino. This almost certainly due to the director and writer, Robert Rodriguez, being himself unapologetically Latino. And thank goodness for it, otherwise, how else would we have the awesome Danny Trejo play the distinctly non-family friendly Machete in a kid’s film?
8. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind – 2002 (R)
In between taping The Gong Show and The Dating Game, famous (infamous?) TV host Chuck Barris would fly around the world for the CIA and kill people. Did it happen? Did he make it all up because he hated his life and wanted to be someone else? Really, it doesn’t matter at the end of the day because Sam Rockwell stepped into his shoes on the Silver Screen and made us believe that he did. Or didn’t. It’s up to you to decide!
Expertly directed by first-timer George Clooney, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind acts as almost a therapy session. Based on Barris’ autobiography, the film shows us how he more or less loathed his success and channeled that loathing into (allegedly) being a hitman for the government. It’s not a comedy, although there are moments of laugh out loud humor, but more of a mad romp through the world of television game shows and, maybe, just maybe, CIA black ops.
9. The Departed – 2006 (R)
The Departed isn’t a “spy movie” in that it doesn’t involve international espionage or foreign agents. It does, however, have more plot twists and backstabbing than most “real” spy movies do and that’s saying something. Martin Scorsese takes his top-notch cast (Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, the list goes on) and moves his pieces around like a chess grandmaster. You never see it coming until the bullet goes through someone’s head (which seems to happen a lot).
Instead of the KGB versus the CIA, you have the Irish mob versus the Massachusetts State Police. The mob has a mole (Matt Damon) inside the force. The force has a mole (Leonardo DiCaprio) inside the mob. Both sides know they have a rat and the race is on. Who do you trust when anyone could be the traitor and being outed will get you killed? Snitches get stitches. And two in the back of the head.
The struggle may not cross the border but the tension doesn’t get any higher and that’s what you’re here for, right?
10. The Bourne Ultimatum – 2007 (PG-13)
For some reason, this is the only one of the Bourne spy movies on Netflix. But if you’re a fan of action spy flicks, you’ve surely watched them already so you won’t feel guilty about rewatching part three. Watching Matt Damon leap from rooftops and kick ass all over the world never gets old. The Bourne series has a different flavor from Mission: Impossible in that Matt Damon doesn’t have access to all the fancy equipment Tom Cruise does; he’s usually on his own with whatever he can get his hands on up against the unlimited resources of the United States government. Those poor bastards never stood a chance…
As the “final” movie of the trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum finally (sort of) gets to the bottom of what happened to Matt Damon’s character. He learns why he can’t remember his past and how he became a remorseless killing machine for the government. Finding allies within the CIA and elsewhere, Damon (spoilers) brings down the rogue agency that created him in the first place with nonstop action and fantastic fight scenes.
My personal favorite of the wide variety of spy movies on Netflix has to be Inglourious Basterds because it never ever gets old killing Nazis. Between Brad Pitt’s magnificent monologue, the Bear Jew, and what happens to Hitler (spoilers, darling), it’s just a viscerally satisfying way to spend an evening. Quentin Tarantino is a master of dialogue and the action is always top notch when he’s at the helm. Just make sure the kids are asleep. But whatever you’re in the mood for, comedy, action, family friendly, or decidedly not, Netflix will keep you on the edge of your seat. Enjoy!
Featured Image: Screen capture of promotional image via IMDb