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It’s time to go undercover.
James Bond. Jason Bourne. Jack Ryan. Ethan Hunt. Austin Powers. They have three major things in common. They’re white men, they’re spies, and you won’t find any of their movies on Netflix. It’s kind of odd that a genre as popular as spy movies would be so poorly represented on Netflix, but here we are. (Unless, of course, the good stuff is actually undercover and just doing a really great job hiding in the rest of the library.) We doffed our fake glasses and Groucho mustache and dug around for the best spy movies on Netflix. Unfortunately, the selection isn’t very deep, but it does have a few titles worth checking out.
The best spy movies on Netflix
1) The Bourne Ultimatum
The latest highly touted Jason Bourne ended up like most sequels: better in theory than in practice. But why dwell on that when you can put on 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum? It’s the high mark of the series (a claim that works for each of the first three films). Bourne heads back to New York to finally get the truth about his past and is ready to punch, maim, and kill anyone who stands between him and the truth. From director Paul Greengrass’s kinetic camera to Matt Damon’s fierce and vulnerable performance, Ultimatum delivers everything fans of the series what to see.
2) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
This adaptation of John le Carré’s novel is an absorbing espionage film. Gary Oldman gives one of his best, and most subdued, performances as George Smiley. It’s directed by Tomas Alfredson (of Let the Right One In fame) who is no stranger to thoughtful, slow-boil genre films. Tinker Tailor solidified Alfredson as a compelling new voice in world cinema and delivered a film worthy of le Carré’s legacy.
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3) Johnny English Reborn
If I told you there is a movie with Rosamund Pike, Gillian Anderson, Dominic West, and Daniel Kaluuya, you would be interested, right? Well, the good news is that such a movie exists. I’m talking about, of course, Johnny English Reborn. Rowan Atkinson stars as the eponymous Johnny English, a British spy. The movie lovingly parodies the James Bond films and the spy genre as a whole. Johnny English Reborn is a light, fun movie that emphasizes silliness over the typical somber spy film trappings. Plus, that cast!
4) Spy Hard
If you’re tired of spy movies that take themselves too seriously, playing their absurd plot twists with a straight face and spewing spy jargon to confuse you, Spy Hard is the antidote. The late, great Leslie Nielsen is Steele, Dick Steele aka Agent WD-40, and he’s on a mission to commit international acts of silliness and parody.
5) Burn After Reading
Spy movies condition audiences to expect these highly trained characters to be clever at every time and have an answer for everything. While watching hypercompetent people at work can be quite satisfying, sometimes it’s more fun to see the opposite end of the spectrum. Enter the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading, where the characters are all goofballs who have no clue what they’re doing but they do it anyway. It’s Espionage by dummies with plenty of the Coen’s dark humor: What could go wrong?
The hunter becomes the hunted in this spy thriller starring Don Cheadle. Cheadle plays Samir Horn, and Sudanese-American soldier who is the prime suspect in a rash of bombings across the globe. This is a fairly disposable action flick, but it’s entertaining while it lasts. Cheadle is always a treat to watch, and that holds true here. Also, if you’re looking for a good bit of trivia to impress your friends, the movie is based on an idea from none other than Steve Martin.
7) The Angel
Israeli-American historical spy thriller The Angel, Netflix‘s latest international original film, is a mostly well-done adaptation of Uri Bar-Joseph’s book, The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel. Capably directed by Ariel Vromen, with Marwan Kenzari and Toby Kebbell starring in exceptional performances, the sturdy film doesn’t attempt to be more than it is, living through the complicated backstory. Ultimately The Angel works on its whole, largely thanks to Vromen’s excellent direction and the stiff back of Kenzari, who turns in a masterful performance. The politics and messiness of the film aside, his interaction with Kebbell is must-see viewing. —Kahron Spearman
8) The Spy Who Went Into the Cold
This documentary focuses on the career of Kim Philby, an MI6 agent who worked as a spy for the Soviet Union during and after World War II. History buffs may get the most enjoyment out of this one, but everybody could stand to learn a little more about the past.
Need more ideas? Here are our Netflix guides for the best war movies, documentaries, anime, indie flicks, true crime, food shows, Westerns, and movies based on true stories streaming right now. There are also sad movies guaranteed to make you cry, weird movies to melt your brain, and standup specials when you really need to laugh. Or check out Flixable, a search engine for Netflix.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
Eddie Strait is a member of the Austin Film Critic Association. His reviews focus primarily on streaming entertainment, with an emphasis on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other on-demand services.