A special brand of excitement can be found in spy movies. Audiences are swept away by dashing agents strutting into high-stakes scenarios, embedding into exotic locations, and entangling in sexy and dangerous alliances. Eye-popping gadgetry, heart-racing action sequences, and mind-bending twists are all to be expected, yet are nonetheless enthralling.
Through all these spy standards, there’s still room for exhilarating variety. A satisfying spy movie might be steamy, suspenseful, or even silly. Whatever kind of spy story you’re seeking, we’ve got something for you.
Here are the best spy movies on Netflix now:
1. Casino Royale
Bond. Shirtless James Bond.
Credit: Jay Maidment/Eon/Danjaq/Sony/Kobal/Shutterstock
For decades, Bond—James Bond—has defined the espionage thriller. Following in the footsteps of the likes of Roger Moore, Sean Connery, and Pierce Brosnan, English leading man Daniel Craig took on the role of 007 in this 2006 hit that reimagined Bond for the modern age.
Directed by Martin Campbell, Casino Royale jetted audiences back to the MI6’s operative’s early days, when he was working toward achieving his license to kill. With blue eyes as steely as his demeanor, Craig made his mark on this storied franchise by hurling himself into exhilarating action, delivering sharp quips, and seducing a glamorous Bond Girl (Eva Green). Bringing added oomph to this blockbuster are supporting performances from Mads Mikkelsen, Jeffrey Wright, and Judi Dench. And if you want to double down, hit play on Quantum of Solace next.
Ar-Go fuck yourself!
Credit: Warner Bros Pictures/Kobal/Shutterstock
Ben Affleck pulls double-duty, serving as director and leading man of this heralded historical thriller from 2012.
Inspired by a stranger-than-fiction CIA scheme, Argo follows an imaginative agent (Affleck), who goes undercover as a sci-fi movie producer, so he might rescue Americans from the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. To make the ruse work, he must collaborate with some real Hollywood types, including a snarky make-up artist (John Goodman) and a surly producer (Alan Arkin), both of whom bring spunk and levity to an otherwise pulse-poundingly tense scenario. Critics cheered Affleck’s riveting balance of drama, suspense, and cheeky Hollywood ribbing, and the Academy followed suit, awarding Argo three Oscars, including Best Picture.* –K.P.
3. The Bourne Ultimatum
Matt Damon IS Jason Bourne.
Credit: Jasin Boland/Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock
Matt Damon’s spin on super-agent was so powerful in 2002’s The Bourne Identity that it not only gave Bond a run for his money. But it also launched an action-packed espionage thriller film franchise all about Jason Bourne. Based on the Robert Ludlum novel of the same name, The Bourne Ultimatum is the third installment of the film series, which boasts Damon as an affable assassin on the run. Seeking to better understand his secret agent past, Bourne has run afoul of his former CIA handlers, whose Operation Blackbriar seems dedicated to bringing him in…or bringing him down for good. But behind the steely expression, this hunky hero finds a friend in an “inside man.” David Strathairn, Julia Stiles, and Paddy Considine co-star. –K.P.
Liam Neeson doesn’t mess about.
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Is this one critically heralded? No. Still, this 2011 movie was a box office smash because it’s an action-thriller starring Liam Neeson.
So, if that’s your jam, you won’t want to miss this fast-paced flick, which has horror-director Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax, Orphan, The Shallows) dipping his toe into espionage. Based on a French novel by Didier Van Cauwelaert, Unknown stars Neeson as Dr. Martin Harris, who is traveling to Berlin with his picture-perfect wife (January Jones). But then a forgotten briefcase and a taxi-cab crash spins him into a bizarre new reality: his wife says she’s not his wife, and she insists he’s not Dr. Martin Harris. Chasing down the truth, this anonymous man of action uncovers deception, conspiracy, and an assassination plot…and that’s just for starters. Lacing tension, terror, action and intrigue, Collet-Serra and Neeson create a juicy thriller that delivers.
5. Red Joan
Sophie Cookson as Young Joan and Stephen Campbell Moore as Max Davis in “Red Joan.”
Credit: Nick Wall / Lionsgate / Kobal / Shutterstock
This espionage drama begins in a picturesque English garden, where a sweet old lady (Judi Dench) is pruning shrubbery when she’s abruptly arrested for treason. Flashbacks whisk us to World War II-era England, when Joan Smith (Sophie Cookson) was a bright young woman with high ideals, who strode into a world of international intrigue, torrid romance, and potential nuclear war.
Inspired by Melita Norwood, an English civil servant who gave classified atomic weapons information to the KGB, Red Joan reveals a story about a complicated and controversial woman, who broke all the rules—and arguably betrayed her nation—in hopes of saving the world. Theater director Trevor Nunn guides his cast through portrayals that are restrained but riveting. But best of all are the film’s stinging sequences of spycraft, injected with a woman’s touch for diversion, from fur coats and baby carriages to men’s squeamishness over a box of sanitary napkins.
6. American Ultra
A popular trope in spy movies is the sleeper agent, a mild-mannered person who contains the muscle memory and spycraft skills of a deadly operative. In some cases, their true identity is a mystery even to themselves. That is until a cryptic code word unlocks a treasure trove of secrets.
Imagine The Manchurian Candidate as a stoner comedy, and you’ll have some sense of the wacky pleasures of 2015’s American Ultra. Jesse Eisenberg stars as a hapless convenience store clerk, whose big plan is to propose to his cool girlfriend (Kristen Stewart). That is until an ambush by heavily armed foes turns on his hidden programming, revealing he’s Jason Bourne…if Jason Bourne was a pothead with anxiety issues.
Director Nima Nourizadeh brings a frenzied pace, explosive action, and an intoxicating goofiness to the familiar premise of an agent gone rogue to save his girl. Connie Britton, John Leguizamo, Walton Goggins, and Topher Grace co-star.
7. The Net
Sandra Bullock is caught in “The Net!”
This 1995 film is a wonderful and entertaining time capsule about the early days of the internet and Americans’ emerging fears about online spying.
With the intensity and vulnerability that made her an A-lister, Sandra Bullock stars as a reclusive hacker who follows a mysterious glitch down a rabbit hole of conspiracy, identity theft, and a ruthless syndicate that’s wants to delete her. To best her sinister foes, she’ll have to use her computer savvy, her fast-dwindling friend list, and her wits. Pitching his protagonist out from behind the comfort zone of her computer screen, director Irwin Winkler creates a web that’s worldwide and full of threats, from Cancun beaches to sterile retirement homes, to sprawling convention centers, and the arms of a handsome stranger (Jeremy Northam). The look of the old-school internet might cause chuckles, but the chills of this espionage thriller still hold up.
8. The Penguins of Madagascar
Benedict Cumberbatch voices a smug wolf spy in “Penguins of Madagascar.”
I spy something family-friendly! After proving stealthy scene-stealers in the Madagascar movies, 2014’s The Penguins of Madagascar gives this wacky waddle an espionage-stuffed spinoff of their own.
Directors Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith crack open the origin story of how the four-penguin squad of Skipper, Kowalski, Rico, and Private came together. Then, they give these silly spies a globe-trekking mission that pits them against an ornery octopus, who is a master of disguise. Along with espionage drama standards—like lush locations, wild tech, and gonzo action—this animated romp also offers tons of laughs, working in parody, pratfalls, and fart jokes with equal relish. Bringing verve to the voice cast are celebrated dramatic actors John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Peter Stormare, as well as documentarian Werner Herzog.
9. The Sleepover
If you like your spy stories with highly equipped with kid-friendly silliness, then you’ll enjoy this Netflix original action-comedy.
Directed by Trish Sie and written by Sarah Rothschild, The Sleepover has serious Spy Kids vibes, as it centers on a band of clever kiddos, who must use their wits to outsmart evil forces that have snatched away their secret-keeping parents. Malin Åkerman stars as a loving mom, whose past as a master thief has come back to gatecrash what should have been a simple sleepover.
Teaming with her former partner in crime (Joe Manganiello) and her oafish husband (Ken Marino), she’s pushed to pull off one last job. Meanwhile, her kids and their friends (Sadie Stanley, Maxwell Simkins, Lucas Jaye, and Cree Cicchino) are plotting a rescue plan. Sure, no one is technically a spy. But The Sleepover follows the espionage playbook with action, reveals, reversals, high-tech gadgets, secret passageways, and glamorous glow-ups.
How to watch: The Sleepover is streaming on Netflix.