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Spies in Disguise: celebrating cinema's 6 most iconic masters of espionage


They’re smart, slick and, if they’re any good at their job, blend in seamlessly. Welcome to the life of a spy. And what better way to go undetected than disguised as something as unremarkable, as everyday as, say, the common pigeon.

While it’s unlikely we’ll see 007 donning a beak and feathers anytime soon, such a delightfully off-piste premise lies at the heart of Spies in Disguise, the latest offering from animation studio Blue Sky (Ice Age; Rio). Featuring the voices of Will Smith and Tom Holland, the film follows super spy Lance Sterling (Smith) who, courtesy of tech prodigy Walter Beckett (Holland), is transformed into aforementioned bird. 

An ingenious guise it might be, but when an evil mastermind in the form of Ben Mendelsohn’s Killian is wreaking havoc, it’s probably not all that practical. With the film swooping into Cineworld on the 27th of December, we’re celebrating cinema’s six most memorable masters of espionage.

1. James Bond

With the first trailer for No Time To Die dropping recently, there really is no time like the present to talk about James Bond.

From Sean Connery to Daniel Craig, Dr. No to Spectre, for over 50 years, the womanising, martini-sipping secret agent has been an icon of the silver screen. He’s always delivering memorable one-liners and continuously defying the impracticalities of wearing a suit while dispatching bad guys and emerging completely unruffled.

007’s most difficult mission of late, however, has been keeping with the times. His upcoming outing, the 25th in the series and final one for current Bond actor Craig, is the first to arrive in the #MeToo and Time's Up era.

With True Detective director Cary Joji Fukunaga at the helm, and the talents of Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge on script duties, No Time To Die hints at an intriguing shake-up of Bond’s tried and tested formula. The movie is released on the 2nd of April 2020.

2. Ethan Hunt

Whether it’s bringing down helicopters with explosive chewing gum or building a hugely popular film franchise, when it comes to Ethan Hunt, no mission is impossible.

Now six films deep (with two more on the way), the action spy series, and its star Tom Cruise, have become synonymous with the genre, producing nail-biting moments that have been often imitated, but rarely bettered.

Such is the impact of Mission: Impossible, in fact, that it’s difficult to think of a time before Tom Cruise’s sweat-inducing, wire-dangling escapades and composer Lalo Schifrin’s iconic theme music.

3. Austin Powers

There’s something wonderfully ironic about a character who was intended as a Bond spoof, only to become just as famous as 007 himself.

Written and produced by, and starring, Mike Myers, the Austin Powers series celebrates spy movie clichés, riffing on the genre’s outlandish plots and innuendo-laced dialogue. Powers himself, the titular international man of mystery, is very deliberately the series’ greatest conundrum: an archetype of London’s swinging sixties who is, quite literally, frozen in time.

Yet, even with an archaic style and (very) bad teeth, he proves utterly irresistible to women. Playing multiple roles across the franchise — most ingeniously, as Powers’ arch nemesis, Dr. Evil (an obvious parody of Bond villain Blofeld) — Myers steals the show.

But its grooviest casting choice was getting Michael Caine to show up as Austin’s dad in the series’ third (and so far final) instalment, Goldmember. Caine had himself portrayed altogether more dour, down-to-Earth spy Harry Palmer in 1966 classic The Ipcress File.

4. Jason Bourne

By the time author Robert Ludlum had published the last of his three Jason Bourne books in 1990, Ian Fleming’s James Bond legacy had long been engrained in popular culture. But, despite the obvious parallels between the pair, comparing Bourne to Bond is like comparing apples and oranges.

The latter is the suave darling of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The former is a gritty assassin and rogue employee of the CIA. While the Bond film franchise has often skirted the mystery of its hero’s lineage (Skyfall being a notable exception), Bourne’s story is one underpinned by the search for identity.

The ever-diverse Matt Damon makes the character his own, cementing him as an action hero for the ages. But it’s the emotional range Damon brings to the role that really separates Bourne from the rest. He is intimidating yet intriguing, fierce but flawed.

5. Natasha Romanoff

Along with Bond, next year will see the return of another famous fictional spy: skilled Russian assassin Natasha Romanoff (AKA Black Widow). Having been a staple of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) for the best part of a decade, it might seem surprising that it’s taken this long for Black Widow to finally headline her own movie (it’s also ironic that it arrives now, given her fate in Avengers: Endgame).

Still, the prospect of an origin story — set between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity One — for one of the MCU’s most interesting, underdeveloped heroes, remains an exciting one. As deadly in hand-to-hand combat as she is an expert in espionage, Romanoff is both resilient and fiercely adaptable.

But, unlike many of her comrades, she doesn’t possess any superhuman ability. She is, first and foremost, human, imbued with all the strength and courage we expect, but also burdened by the sins, secrets and skeletons we all carry. And it is this very fact that makes Romanoff all the more compelling, and her tale all the more intriguing. Black Widow is due for release on the 1st of May 2020.

6. Lorraine Broughton

Gritty, stylish spy films don’t get much grittier or more stylish than David Leitch’s Cold War action flick Atomic Blonde. Based on a 2012 graphic novel, the story, set just days before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, follows Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron): an MI6 agent tasked with recovering a lost list of secret agents from the German capital.

While the violence is explicit and the action sequences breathtakingly impressive (as one might expect from the co-director of John Wick), it’s Broughton who’s the movie’s true pièce de résistance. A welcome deviation from the charm and charisma of the conventional cinematic spy, Broughton is brutal and uncompromising, and right up there with the genre’s heaviest hitters.

Spies in Disguise is released in Cineworld cinemas on the 26th of December. Got a favourite movie spy of your own? Let us know @Cineworld.

George Nash is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.