One of the reasons audiences love the spy genre is because of their appetite for surprise. Notorious for twists and turns, the genre exposes viewers to some of the most interesting gadgetry, fights, villains and heroes all in one place. Never sure who to trust, viewers play cat and mouse with the characters on screen, and can be blown away by the extent of their skill. Known by many to be the gold standard of espionage, James Bond (also known as 007) is an incredibly skilled agent, but there are so many others who deserve acknowledgement.
With Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. arriving in theaters on Friday, we thought we’d take a look at a few of those other spies that deserve some respect for their skills. The entries on this list will be focused around characters from film and television; some will come as no surprise, but others are not revealed to be spies until further along in their storyline. Here are Screen Rant’s 10 most skillful spies who aren’t James Bond.
Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin – The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
In the popular television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Kuryakin (David McCallum) are partners working for a global association called the United Network Command for Law Enforcement (U.N.C.L.E.). Created by James Bond-inventor Ian Fleming, the pair each exhibit different and distinct personalities that converge to form an effective force. Not unlike Bond, Solo is a charming, optimistic, straight-shooter with a weakness for women, whereas Kuryakin is a temperamental, mysterious genius proficient with explosives. Trained in martial arts, the duo also employs various gadgets and spy equipment disguised as cigarettes and pens.
According to Stan Lee, it was these two characters who inspired him to create Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Lee isn’t the only fan. The Central Intelligence Agency has a private exhibit in its museum dedicated to the show, housing some original props from the program. Even Solo’s gun (which can switch from semi-automatic to fully automatic) was popular, and received it’s own fan mail.
Harry Tasker – True Lies
As an operative in the Omega Sector, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Harry Tasker is a man who gets things done. Under cover of being a computer salesman (oh, the 90’s), it’s clear that his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) and daughter (Eliza Dushku) love him, but think he’s a pretty unremarkable guy. His wife even comments that his droning voice puts her to sleep – a testament to his deceptive skill. In reality, Tasker is a duplicitous bruiser with confidence that goes through the roof. Tasker is the type to walk in to a party, punch the host in the face, say something hilarious, and then leave through the front door.
Versed in weaponry, combat and aviation- he shows off all of his skills in the film’s unforgettable finale, saving his family in the process. When not busy kicking major ass, he can be found at formal parties doing the Tango.
Ethan Hunt – Mission: Impossible
Ethan Hunt is a man of many talents, as he’s proved most recently in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Like The Man From U.N.C.L.E, Mission: Impossible is based and a 60s television series, and as such has its roots in Cold War ideology. As a member of the Impossible Mission Force (IMF), Ethan Hunt is sent to do the things that can’t be done. Working with a mission objective in mind, Hunt is free to develop his own framework for achieving it, as the government formally denies a task-force such as the IMF exists. Brimming with ability, he is adept at ninjutsu, eskrima, capoeira, keysi and taekwondo. Surveillance, high-speed driving, infiltration, exfiltration, and thinking on the fly are his specialties.
An honorable man, Hunt maintains his integrity regardless of circumstance and always has the well-being of his team at heart, willing to put himself in the most dangerous situations before anyone else. Hellbent on uncovering corruption, he is relentless in his search for the truth and will use his every skill to hold the guilty parties accountable.
Simon Templar – The Saint
Thankfully for audiences everywhere, Val Kilmer declined the opportunity to reprise his role as Batman, opting instead to star as Simon Templar in 1997’s The Saint, another adaptation of a 60s TV series, starring pre-007 Roger Moore. A master of disguise and international thief, Templar knows a thing or two about being sneaky. Dubbed “the Robin Hood of modern crime”, he goes after the rich bad guys and gives to the good guys. Despite originally being written to have a Dexter-esque vigilante mentality toward criminals, the 1997 film adaptation has Kilmer playing a more righteous version of Templar who prefers to let the court dole out punishment rather than his gun.
Living by a code, Templar does not kill his enemies but rather employs an arsenal of high-tech gadgets to subdue the crooks until they can be brought to justice, not unlike Kilmer’s previous hero character, Batman. Though perhaps not universally lauded as a successful film adaptation, Simon Templar is too skilled to be forgotten.
Sidney Bristow – Alias
Separated from her parents at a young age, Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) is physically and emotionally tough. After being scorned by SD-6, the agency that taught her much of what she knows, Bristow vows to take them down and becomes a double agent, working for the CIA. A master of the Israeli combat style Krav Maga, Bristow is an efficient brawler, and can neutralize almost any threat, big or small. She utilizes many disguises and, as a polyglot, she speaks many languages fluently, making her useful against almost any enemy.
A track and field background gives her the athleticism required to keep up with such a demanding profession, and a degree in English Literature helps with nothing, but is a fun chestnut to mention. Bristow has a knack for electromagnetic lock picking and the ability to stay grounded when everything around her is falling to pieces.
Severus Snape – Harry Potter
It ain’t easy being a Death Eater and member of the Order of the Phoenix at the same time, but Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) makes it work. Straddling the line between good and evil, Snape is the ultimate double agent, skulking amongst the ultra-heinous followers of Voldemort to garner information for virtuous Dumbledore (played by Richard Harris in the first two films and Michael Gambon in the latter six). Despite appearing antagonistic toward the franchise’s golden boy, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), it is revealed that Severus worked tirelessly behind the scenes to protect the boy from those who would do him harm.
With a keen sense of self-preservation and deep knowledge of potions and dark magic, Snape is a formidable opponent both in and outside of the classroom. Alongside a Potion Master’s eye for detail, he is one of the most perceptive characters in the franchise. Deeply acquainted with potions, Snape is a magical MacGyver who can whip up enchanted elixirs for every occasion, including one that transforms the drinker into someone else. His arsenal of knowledge is colossal and though he may appear evil, he uses it, ultimately, for noble reasons. If Dumbledore believes in him, why shouldn’t you?
Jason Bourne – The Bourne Identity
It’s not every day you wake up to discover you’re an ultimate badass. As the CIA’s first Treadstone operative, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) spent a lot of time cultivating his technique. Suffering from memory loss, Bourne’s abilities come trickling back to him as the scenes unfold. Highly skilled in hand-to-hand combat, the CIA trained Bourne to be an assassin, and a great one at that. Utilizing whatever is available, Bourne uses the environment (and its objects) to his advantage: pens, magazines, alleyways, whatever.
Fluent in several languages, Bourne isn’t just an interesting spy, he’s also an interesting character. He evades the CIA and then launches a full-scale attack on them, sometimes from only a rooftop away. His neutral appearance allows him to pass for all the different nationalities represented in his passport collection, he drives a car like a champion, AND he gave his girlfriend a wicked haircut. Is there anything he can’t do?
Sterling Archer – Archer
Pompous, promiscuous, and profane, Sterling Malory Archer (voice of H. Jon Benjamin) is equal parts man-sized baby and top-notch super spy. Working for the International Secret Intelligence Service (at least until the acronym “ISIS” stopped being funny) founded by his mother, he often rebels against his mission parameters in favor of doing things his own way. A walking monotonous temper tantrum, Archer makes up for his insolence by excelling in combat; he can memorize how many bullets are left in an enemy magazine, solve intricate mathematical equations, and wreck anyone’s self-esteem in no time flat.
Confidence and antagonism are Archer’s best weapons, able to disarm almost anyone with a well-placed insult or pop culture reference delivered with the comedic timing we all strive for. Sure, he’s moody and condescending, but when left to his own creativity, his missions are successful… most of the time.
Varys – Game of Thrones
In a universe where everyone is viciously looking out for themselves, Game of Thrones‘ Varys (Conleth Hill) claims to serve the realm and acts accordingly under the suspicious gaze of the most powerful people in King’s Landing. It isn’t until further along in the series that the audience is exposed to Varys’ true colors, despite subtle cues dropped along the way. A champion smuggler, Varys can get anything for (and from) anyone thanks to his wide net of contacts across Westeros.
Sometimes referred to as “the spider”, Varys has the respect (and therefore the ear) of some of the show’s most powerful figures, sitting on the King’s small council and pulling strings behind the scenes, receiving no glory for his manipulations. In addition to being able to talk anyone into anything, he holds the rank Master of Whisperers, a position responsible for gathering intelligence by spying, a job made easy by his flawlessly innocent facade.
Natasha Romanoff a.k.a Black Widow – The Avengers
The only agent of S.H.I.E.L.D deemed skilled enough to work beside Captain America, Natasha Romanoff is an athletic, acrobatic badass with deep knowledge of myriad martial arts… and ballet. In addition to being a munitions expert, she can manipulate just about anyone, with no “superpowers” to speak of. A russian native, Romanoff was groomed to become a killing machine in the Widow Program, who’s prerogative it was to churn out competent, disciplined sleeper agents.
Showing keen intellect and tactical expertise, Widow was able to infiltrate Tony Stark’s inner circle, and proved herself to be deadlier than Happy Hogan, Stark’s head of security. Aided by several gadgets, Romanoff can make a weapon out of just about anything thanks to her keen intellect and resourcefulness, and isn’t afraid of a fight.
With so many skillful spies to choose from, it’s hard to narrow it down to only ten. Who are your favourite skillful spies from movies and T.V? Be sure to tell us about them in the comments below!