It seems fair to say that most of us love a good spy flick: Whether you’re the kind of person who dreamt of brandishing your gun and saving the day Tom Cruise-style or more the type who wanted to liven up James Bond’s Foreign Service missions, there’s something for everyone in the glamorous spy movie genre. Not surprisingly, Hollywood has been quick to catch onto this, and for many years now cinema has seen its fair share of secret agents come and go. The genre has done so well that it’s spawned family-friendly flicks like Spy Kids, too.
There are some spies that have truly captured the imaginations of their audiences and have remained timeless even as they world around them changes. Many of today’s major on-screen spy stars began life on the pages of best-selling novels which were strongly influenced by the Cold War events of the twentieth century. As history has changed our view of the world so too have these characters adapted – but the core of their inimitable personalities, and their distinctive traits, remains the same.
In honour of these brave characters who- albeit fictionally- dedicate themselves to services to their country, we’ve taken a look at the top five on-screen spy heroes. We’ve ranked our secret agents by the amount their films have made at the US box office over the years, with a nod to the characters’ original creators where necessary. So without further ado, pour yourself a cocktail that is fit for an international man – or woman- of mystery and marvel at the millions grossed by these classic spy movies.
5. George Smiley (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy): $24.1 Million
George Smiley may come last on our list on our list of box office successes, but to be honest, we don’t think he’d mind too much. As one of the most influential spy characters ever created, George is highly regarded in the literary world. The character of George Smiley appears in a number of Cold War spy novels by the British author John Le Carré, including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Honourable Schoolboy and, of course, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Much of the success of Le Carré’s spy novels is attributed to the accuracy and detail he goes into for his spies and their roles in the secret service. As the author himself was a former employee of Her Majesty’s secret service during the Cold War, it would seem he had plenty of material to draw on in his novels – some even speculate the much of George Smiley’s character is based on Le Carré. Smiley first appeared in the 1964 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy published ten years later. Both were phenomenal best-sellers with Tinker Tailor adapted as a television series in the late 1970s by the BBC.
Most recently, of course, British-actor Gary Oldman immortalised this famous spy in the 2011 adaptation. The film was a major critical hit with Oldman nominated for both a BAFTA and an Academy Award. Although $24.1 million may not sound like a huge amount- at least not compared to the rest of our list- for a low-budget film that’s an impressive take-home. In Le Carré’s native Britain the film was hugely successful, taking in an additional $22.8 million on top of the US earnings. Smiley isn’t Le Carré’s only successful character to hit the big screen, however: The Constant Gardener starring Ralph Fiennes and The Tailor of Panama with Pierce Brosnan, also began as novels written by the author.
4. Jack Ryan (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit): $30 Million +
Jack Ryan is the newest entry to our list, but he’s quickly on his way to raking in the box office millions. The film ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’, starring Chris Pine and Keira Knightley, was released at the start of this year and made $17 million in its opening weekend alone. Ryan is the creation of the best-selling novelist Tom Clancy, and the character appears in several of the author’s novels. Where number 5 on our list – Smiley – is more the bookish, office type, Ryan displays more of the cool, sophisticated traits we have come to know from our silver screen secret agents. He works in both the US Navy and the stock market before being headhunted by the C.I.A. Unlike most other characters on our list, Ryan is married.
Chris Pine is not the first actor to take on Clancy’s much-loved action hero however: the author’s debut novel, ‘The Hunt for Red October’ saw Alec Baldwin portray Ryan, while the 1992 film ‘Patriot Game’s saw action movie favourite Harrison Ford take on the role. While the film adaptations so far have portrayed Ryan as the action hero thrust into the heat of battle, Clancy’s novels track the long career path of the CIA agent, even taking him all the way to the White House. With box office sales looking strong for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, we may yet see Chris Pine- or some other lucky actor- reprise the role.
3. Jason Bourne (Bourne Trilogy): $524 Million
For millennials, the character of Jason Bourne represents an altogether more modern – and arguably realistic – portrait of a spy than the classic depiction. Rather than swoop in and save the day as his on-screen predecessor James Bond would, Bourne is instead cast out of the C.I.A and left to fend for himself, his life fragmented as a result of his secret life as an undercover operative. Bourne is the creation of the best-selling thriller and spy novelist Robert Ludlum, who developed the Bourne character in a series of three novels – The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Ludlum died in 2001, but the character has lived on through the writing of author Eric Van Lustbader, demonstrating the demand for these spy stories.
As Ludlum created the Bourne character in the 1980s, the novels differ significantly from the modern film adaptations which bear their name, but the spirit and elusive nature of Bourne remains. The first of the series, ‘The Bourne Identity’ took in $121 million at the US box office when it was release in 2002, and would become a defining role for actor Matt Damon – it was the role which established him as the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. The sequel, ,The Bourne Supremacy’, raked in $176 million in 2004, while ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ surpassed its predecessors by taking in $227 million in the United States alone.
Much like Le Carré’s George Smiley, Bourne reveals the reality of the isolated and lonely life of a spy, something that is evident in both Ludlum’s novels and the on-screen versions: Bourne has no family or friends and becomes so immersed in his missions, he rarely even makes contact with base. The calculating nature with which the British and American bureaus dismiss their agents is also a far cry from the suited and booted James Bond.
2. Ethan Hunt (Mission Impossible Series): $737 Million
As the only character on our list not to begin life on the pages of a novel, Ethan Hunt is a lesson in the development of a modern-day spy. Originally a television series of the same name, Mission Impossible hit the big screen in 1996 with everything you need for box office success; sleek action star, some lovely leading ladies, international filming locations and, of course, a killer, distinctive theme tune. The first of the Mission Impossible series took in $180 million at the US box office, making it the third highest-grossing film of the year, behind Independence Day and Twister. The second of the films was the most successful in terms of US earnings, taking in $215 million, while the third, MI:III appears to have under-performed, taking in a mere $133 million. Ethan Hunt’s most recent outing in the 2011 movie Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol turned this around however, earning $209 million in the United States.
Throughout this 15 year series, Tom Cruise has been the face for Hunt, and the role changed his career: Films such as Minority Report, Jack Reacher and Collateral provided roles destined for the espionage star Cruise. With a fifth Mission Impossible film rumoured to be on the cards, it’s clear that there ‘s still plenty of demand for both Cruise and the spy genre. Ethan Hunt is a far cry from Jerry Maguire, and even further jump from Cruise’s 80s roles including Cocktail and, of course, Top Gun’s Maverick.
1. James Bond (007): $1.9 Billion
It will come as no surprise to any cinephiles or spy fans alike to hear that the number one spot on our list goes to the one and only James Bond. The 007 films are not simply the antics for a swashbuckling spy hero; they reflect the mood and fashion of the times in which they were created. Before Bond every hit the big screen however, he was of course the protagonist of author Ian Fleming’s thirteen novels based on the spy. The first, ‘Casino Royale’, was published in 1952 after Fleming retired from life as a journalist covering foreign affairs. During the Second World War, Flemming, like his character Bond, served in the Naval Intelligence offices of the Admiralty and while he may not have lived as dramatic a life as Bond, he certainly was entrusted with many state secrets.
Eleven years after the first Bond book was published came the first in the now long-standing franchise, starring Sean Connery as Bond in ‘Dr. No’. Six actors have since played the British spy on screen. While the Bond film franchise at first appeared to distance itself from the darker undertones of Fleming’s novels, the recent productions starring Daniel Craig have arguably rediscovered the spirit of the original Bond. As with the best spies, little is ever revealed about Bond’s personal life – the agent’s only permanent ‘significant other’ is the secret service.
While the name James Bond is today forever associated with the sleek tuxedo jacket, the shaken-not-stirred vodka martini, and the Walther PPK, his origins are a little more down to earth. Fleming revealed that the inspiration for the infamous character’s name came from a somewhat more banal
With the most recent Bond movie ‘Skyfall’ taking in over $304 million in the US, it seems that 007 will indeed return, and the franchise shows no signs of slowing down financially.