Spy movies already tend to be at least a little silly. How realistic is James Bond? Does any pencil-pushing agent get to ever leave cramped rooms, let alone jump on moving airplanes like Ethan Hunt? Even George Smiley, hero of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, leads a more exciting life than anyone in British intelligence. But spy movies mostly play it straight, and as a result, there are plenty of spy comedies to make fun of them. There are many kinds of spy comedies: they can be parodies, they can be satires. They can be farces, even rom-coms. As we wait a bit longer for the next Bond film, No Time to Die, now due in November, let’s put up our feet and take a look back at a genre that dares laugh at stuff that, in the real world, could end with us all killed.
10. The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997)
You can separate Bill Murray’s career into two halves: There’s before he made Rushmore and there’s after. When Wes Anderson cast the deadpan comedy god as Herman Blume, a depressed Texan industrialist competing for the affections of a private school teacher with a 15-year-old boy, he unlocked the man’s deep, melancholic side, which had always been there but rarely been so visible. Anderson also saved a career that, by the late ’90s, was in trouble. No one, wisely, saw the wan elephant comedy Larger Than Life, nor, tragically, did they turn out to watch him, and his hair, steal the Farrelly brothers’ Kingpin. They didn’t see this spy comedy either, which is also a shame. Murray plays a dense Iowan everyman who winds up mistaken for a cunning secret agent by Russian intelligence, and he spends the majority of the film unaware that his life is in danger. Murray has always played cool and above-it-all, but here he leans full-tilt boogie into square silliness, throwing himself into ludicrous misunderstandings and energetic slapstick. And it’s probably the last time we’ll ever see Murray in full goofball mode, smiling, doing pratfalls, playing a happy idiot, not a brooding know-it-all.
9. Undercover Brother (2002)
Eddie Griffin had a short-lived stint as a Hollywood leading man, the best of which was this two-pronged spoof that sent up spy movies and blaxploitation. Based on the animated internet series from future 12 Years a Slave writer John Ridley, it’s silly and savage, stupid and smart, with Griffin’s titular freelancer joining a secret African-American agency called The B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. that battles white power, led by a villain known, of course, simply as The Man. The plot finds The Man trying to take down a black politician (Billy Dee Williams) running for president, a whole six years before Obama beat McCain. It was funny then and there’s no way this hasn’t aged like wine. All that, plus Neil Patrick Harris doing some excellent pre-Harold and Kumar comedy as the agency’s “token: white intern.
8. True Lies (1993)
Action and comedy don’t tend to go together, no matter how many times they’re combined; it’s hard to be funny when you’re worried about your next stunt. Moreover, James Cameron is not a funny guy. His movies are big, serious, sometimes painfully didactic. The weirdest outlier on his CV isn’t his debut, Piranha II: The Spawning; it’s the fact that he made an absurdly expensive action movie that’s actually funny. A remake of a far more modest French comedy called La Totale!, it’s got a great premise: Arnold Schwarzenegger is a spy so good at anonymity even his family doesn’t know his secret. The story’s middle section goes to some strange places; the stretch where our hero tries to punish his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) for considering, but not actually going through with, an affair with a sleazy car dealer (a godly Bill Paxton) — complete with him blackmailing her into a private striptease — is such a skeezy look into the mind of neurotic men it could have been written by Albert Brooks. But mostly Cameron is able to have his cake and eat it, too, satirizing the spy genre while delivering eye-popping set pieces — and, unfortunately, peddling some casual anti-Arab racism that was on the verge of finally becoming uncool.
7. Our Man Flint (1966)
The ’60s were the Golden Age of spy movies. They were everywhere! Everyone wanted their own James Bond franchise, and there were countless knock-offs, the best of them being Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer series. But there were also countless spy movie spoofs. Dean Martin did four stints as Matt Helm (including The Wrecking Crew, prominently featured in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Doris Day was mistaken for a Russian spy in The Glass Bottom Boat, and Columbia spent a gazillion dollars on the bloated, star-studded parody Casino Royale. The only good early Bond era spy comedies are the two with James Coburn as Derek Flint, a renaissance man and wealthy playboy whose many talents include espionage. Coburn is arguably the coolest actor who ever lived, and his Flint is even more of a badass than Connery’s 007. Here and in the sequel In Like Flint, he plays it straight, which only makes the wacky, psychedelic hijinks around him all the funnier.
6. Spy (2015)
Paul Feig’s movies with Melissa McCarthy are always far better than they had to be, and this one takes a basic premise — what if Melissa McCarthy was in a spy movie? — and goes above and beyond. She’s a CIA desk jockey who winds up trotting the globe, getting involved in intrigue and mayhem and not going only for easy fish-out-of-water gags. McCarthy’s a very generous performer, and she lets numerous others steal her stage: Jason Statham as a foul-mouthed, self-serious agent, Miranda Hart as her gossipy friend, and best of all, Rose Byrne as a posh terrorist who at one point compares McCarthy to “a sad Bulgarian clown.” And while Feig loves improv, he’s also cares about camerawork and mise-en-scène, meaning its action scenes are almost actually exciting.
5. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
Guy Ritchie’s blockbuster career is a bit dodgy; what did you expect the guy who made Snatch to bring to Aladdin? But adapting the titular ’60s spy show turned out be a perfect fit. Ritchie is both a hyperkinetic, inventive stylist and a man with a cheeky sense of humor, and though it’s more a thriller than a comedy, the fact that the comedy is character-based — and delivered by two leads, Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, who aren’t natural comedians, and aren’t trying too hard to earn yuks — is what makes this such a charming brew. Get on that sequel, Guy!
4. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
In the late ’90s, Mike Myers could do whatever he wanted, and what he wanted in 1997, for whatever reason, was a ’60s Bond spoof. Why not! It took a while for audiences to feel the same way, and while the bigger, actually badder sequels aren’t much to speak of, the original is still a solid and weird gag machine. Horny Austin himself has always been of limited interest, but it’s his Blofeld-ish Dr. Evil who’s always been secret weapon, from his love of sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads to that absolutely bonkers monologue he delivers to guest star Carrie Fisher. And of course, there’s this excellent visual gag.
3. Burn After Reading (2008)
The Coens’ goofiest — but also bleakest — movie isn’t really a spy movie. But it’s spy-adjacent, and that’s good enough for this list. John Malkovich plays a former CIA agent who decides he’s going to write a tell-all about his career. (By the way, this is the same set-up for another great spy comedy: 1982’s Hopscotch, starring Walter Matthau at his slyest, though the plots diverge from there. Please watch it, it’s on the Criterion Channel.) But the disc containing his memoir winds up accidentally in the possession of some dundherheaded gym employees (Frances McDormand and an unforgettably coifed Brad Pitt), and eventually Russian intelligence get involved, and at a time when still fearing the Russians seemed ridiculous. It’s the Coens at their broadest, with Clooney, in particular, acting like he’s in a Tex Avery cartoon. But it’s also their darkest treatise on humanity, on life, on America, in which stupidity reigns, lives are destroyed by other people’s mistakes, and the film’s nicest, kindest character winds up with a hatchet to the head. “What did we learn?” asks J.K Simmons CIA honcho as he surveys the damage in the hilariously chilling final scene. “I guess we learned not to do it again. F*cked if I know what we did.”
2. Charade (1963)
There are scores of Hitchcock knock-offs, but few as wonderful as Stanley Donen’s fizzy, twisty-turny Parisian romp. Audrey Hepburn plays a woman whose husband is mysteriously killed, leaving behind a secret fortune that’s gone missing. While trying to avoid three former spies who want the dough, she’s wooed by a stranger played by Cary Grant who — shades of Hitchcock’s own Suspicion — may not be trustworthy. A smooth blend of spy thriller, romance, and comedy, it’s as much Hitchcock as it is Donen, a filmmaker (best known for musicals like Singin’ in the Rain) of great warmth and humor, who made something Hitchcock never quite could.
1. Top Secret! (1984)
They’re known as ZAZ — the team of David Zucker, Jim Abraham, and Jerry Zucker. Their trade, during their ’80s peak, was rapid-fire parodies, one gag after another, teeming with references and non-sequiturs, no dead air, and filled with actors all playing it straight. Everyone knows Airplane! and Police Squad and The Naked Gun and Hot Shots! But the cool kids know the real ZAZ apex is this under-the-radar parody of Cold War spy movies, with Val Kilmer —in his screen debut — as a fresh-faced agent taking on the Nazis. There are Elvis-esque songs, there are priceless one-liners (“I know a little German. He’s right over there”), there are elaborate sight gags (the backwards scene with Peter Cushing), there’s even an underwater fight, complete with aquatic bar stools. It’s ZAZ at their peak powers, never letting up, and it’s time it held the same cultural currency as Airplane!
Runners-Up: Kingsman: The Secret Service, Spy Kids, The Brothers Grimsby, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, RED, Jumping Jack Flash, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, Get Smart, Johnny English
Decidedly Not On This List: Leonard Part 6, Spies Like Us, The Experts, Spy Hard, The Avengers (1998), Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs