Spy vs. Spy: Underrated Secret Agents From Film + TV
Big-budget spy movies are always in season. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (pictured above) recently hit theaters, and a new Bond film, SPECTRE, is on its way in a couple weeks. James Bond and Jason Bourne may be Hollywood's most recognizable and bankable super spies, there are plenty of other suave, debonair, and iconic masters of espionage in film and TV worth checking out.
The Derek Flint films were some of the first ever James Bond parodies and they weren't ashamed of it. There was an Agent 0008 and they even mention the evil organization from Dr. No, S.P.E.C.T.R.E.
James Coburn (The Magnificent Seven) played the womanizing secret agent, Flint, in Our Man Flint (1966), and the sequel, In Like Flint (1967). While he may not be familiar to most now, he made quite the impression on pop culture. Elements of these films have been borrowed by movies as diverse as Austin Powers, Die Hard, and Hudson Hawk.
Jack Ryan almost gives Bond a run for his money as "agent played by the most big name actors"...almost. This CIA super agent has been portrayed by no less than Alec Baldwin (Hunt For Red October), Harrison Ford (Patriot Games; Clear and Present Danger), Chris Pine (Jack Ryan), and even our upcoming Batman, Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears). Ryan's world-saving adventures are adapted from the pages of a series of Tom Clancy novels.
Tom Clancy's "other" bad-ass CIA agent. Clark is a lifelong soldier and officer that was active in the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the Colombia drug war. He is a crisis zone specialist and is behind the creation of the international counter-terrorist unit called Rainbow (better known as Rainbow Six).
He was played by William Defoe in Clear and Present Danger (1994) and by Liev Schreiber in The Sum of All Fears (2002). A couple years ago, when Jack Ryan went into production with Chris Pine, Paramount Pictures was also trying to get an adaptation of the Clancy novel Without Remorse going and they hoped to have Tom Hardy in the lead role of Clark.
SIMON TEMPLAR aka THE SAINT
With radio shows, books, comic strips, TV series, and fourteen feature films since 1938, Simon Templar would not be considered underrated a generation or two ago. For much of the character's history The Saint was promoted as "the Robin Hood of modern day crime" but during the WWII era, Templar became an operative for the American government and continued to act on their behalf post-war. Some may know the 1997 The Saint movie in which Val Kilmer is the man of many aliases, but out of the almost dozen actors that have answered to the name, Roger Moore (Live And Let Die) remains the definitive Simon Templar from his seven year run on the original '60s TV series.
Now that Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) has rebooted the property with Superman aka Henry Cavill in the lead role, we may all soon remember the name Napoleon Solo, but in the 46 years since the original The Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV series ended, the public awareness of this super spy has all but disappeared. Napoleon's partner, Soviet agent Illya Kuryakin (played by David McCallum), was cool too but Solo (played by Robert Vaughn) was always meant to be the focus of the show. In fact, Bond creator Ian Fleming came up with the character and the show was initially going to be called Ian Fleming's Solo!
Sure, with five successful movies, Tom Cruise's character Ethan Hunt and his Impossible Mission Force team are far from underrated, but how about the agent who lead the team in the two popular Mission: Impossible TV series that preceded those films? That would be Jim Phelps (played by Peter Graves), the man most identified with the self-destructing message. Phelps received the secret missions from the hush hush Division 7 in Seasons 2-9 of the original series and then again when the show was relaunched in the late '80s.
Fun fact: Leonard Nemoy (RIP) was a main cast member in Seasons 4 and 5 of the original series.
AARON CROSS aka NUMBER FIVE
If you were to ask joe public who Jeremy Renner played in the Bourne franchise, they would likely say something like, "The other Bourne guy?" Close enough. Aaron Cross is a genetically enhanced black ops agent that is the product of Operation Outcome. Jason Bourne is a black ops assassin that is the product of Operation Treadstone. So, yeah, close enough.
While Bond spoofs are nothing new, Austin Powers kind of cornered the market on the subgenre from 1997-2002. So, when Mike Myers retired his bell-bottoms, ol' English (pun fully intended) jumped right in. Johnny English is basically just Mr. Bean as James Bond. Rowan Atkinson's Black Adder fans might not have been impressed by this film's Hollywood humor but, hey, it was popular enough to get a sequel (Johnny English Reborn).
Paul Moses may not ring a bell for even the most seasoned cinephile, and that's because he is the most recent hard-as-nails agent to hit the big screen on our list. Moses is the CIA agent from Red and Red 2 played by Bruce Willis. This franchise put a whole new spin on the secret agent genre by introducing us to the still rather lethal retirees of the intelligence community. The graphic novel the initial movie is adapted from is written by Warren Ellis with art by Cully Hamner and is a must-read.