Whether it’s a realistic espionage film like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold or a fictional secret agent with a license to kill, spy thrillers and conspiracy movies have been a favorite among movie lovers for decades. Timeless classics like The Third Man, From Russia With Love, and The Man Who Knew Too Much are just a few of the essential films of the genre, but dozens of spy and conspiracy movies are sometimes overlooked by audiences.
Die-hard fans of the genre are bound to enjoy iconic spy and conspiracy thrillers like The Bourne Identity and Bridge of Spies, but underrated films like Murder at 1600, Body of Lies, and Kill the Messenger are just a few that frequently slip past movie fans. From Confessions of a Dangerous Mind to Enemy of the State, these are 10 underrated spy and conspiracy movies that every espionage fan should add to their watchlist!
10 ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’ (2002)
After the major success of his game show, ‘The Dating Game,’ television producer, Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) is given the assignment to host his newest show, ‘The Gong Show.’ By day, he appears to be an average everyday guy, but what the network and audiences are unaware of is that Barris is also a covert assassin for the CIA.
George Clooney made his directorial debut with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind which is based on the unauthorized autobiography of game show pioneer, Chuck Barris. The movie has an excellent blend of dark humor and drama as well as vibrant images of the 1960s and 70s that add an authentic sense of nostalgia to Clooney’s intriguing story.
9 ‘Zeros and Ones’ (2021)
An American soldier (Ethan Hawke) is sent on a mission to Rome to try and stop a potential terrorist attack on the Vatican. Once he arrives, he tries to find his imprisoned twin brother who could be the key to stopping the attack, and must navigate his way through a series of dangerous encounters and events to protect the capital city.
Zeros and Ones is an American-Italian spy thriller written and directed by Abel Ferrerra that had a limited U.S. release in theaters.While the film has its flaws and a somewhat chaotic narrative, Hawke’s solid duel performance is a sight to behold and the film’s stunning cinematography are both convincing reasons to watch Zeros and Ones.
8 ‘Body of Lies’ (2008)
Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a CIA agent who comes up with a dangerous plan to capture a terrorist, Al-Saleem, and enlists the help of chief agent, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe). They create a fake terrorist organization to lure their target out from hiding while at the same time trying to keep the plan a secret from Ferris’ superior.
Body of Liesis an action-spy thriller directed by Ridley Scott that also stars Mark Strong and Oscar Issac. The movie is a homage to the classic spy genre consisting of traditional tropes like intense action, surveillance shots through drones, and thrilling chase scenes that would makethe Master of Suspense proud. Film critic, Roger Ebert, praised Crowe and DiCaprio for their top-notch performances as well as noting the film’s plot to resemble something out of a James Bond movie.
7 ‘Allied’ (2016)
During World War II, Canadian Air Force pilot, Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is given the mission to assassinate a German ambassador where he’s partnered with a French Resistance fighter, Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard). The two fall in love and decide to start a new life together, but the marriage is soon clouded by suspicion and fear that could destroy their relationship and lead to global consequences.
Allied is a romantic war film written and directed by Robert Zemeckis who is best known for directing classic films like Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbitand Forrest Gump. The film’s romance isn’t that substantial but Pitt and Cottilard are riveting as agents who are torn between a world war and their allegiances that make Allied a strong spy film.
6 ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ (2004)
During the Gulf War, Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) and his unit were ambushed, and the horrific event has recently resurfaced in Marco’s nightmares causing him to think back on what exactly happened that day. He begins to wonder about his former squad member, Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) who is running for vice president, and questions if he’s the hero he remembers or a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The Manchurian Candidate is a modernized remake of the 1962 movie of the same title starring Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, and Janet Leigh. Unlike most remakes, it’s hard to say which version is better as both films are tailored to their times. Washington is phenomenal as the admirable Marcos and also brilliantly supported by other notable stars including Meryl Streep and Jon Voight.
5 ‘Kill the Messenger’ (2014)
When a journalist, Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) digs into a story about the origins of America’s crack epidemic, he also finds information about the CIA profiting from the smuggled drugs and using the funds to arm Nicaraguan rebels. Despite being warned to back off, Webb continues his investigation and uncovers a major national conspiracy.
Renner gives a show-stopping performance in Michael Cuesta‘s spy thriller, Kill the Messenger, which also stars Ray Liotta, Oliver Platt, and Andy Garcia. The film stumbles at times, but between Renner’s performance and the dark but thought-provoking subject matter, Kill the Messenger is one marginalized conspiracy film that deserves a bit more credit.
4 ‘Secret Agent’ (1936)
British Intelligence fakes the death of one of their agents, Edgar Brodie (John Gielgud) in order to send him on a mission to Switzerland where he must locate and terminate a German spy. He’s accompanied by agents, Elsa Carrington (Madeline Carroll) and The General (Peter Lorre) and once they locate the spy on a train, they start to have second thoughts about their mission when an American (Robert Young) boards and tries to befriend them.
Secret Agent is an early British spy thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock who was a vital pioneer of the spy genre and genius behind several classic espionage movies like Notorious and North By Northwest starring Cary Grant. Like most Hitchcock films, Secret Agent dabbles with blondes, mistaken identity, and of course, trains, which turns into a suspenseful game of cat and mouse.
3 ‘Burn After Reading’ (2008)
Two gym employees, Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Pitt) end up finding a disc containing the memoirs of a former CIA agent (John Malkovich) but instead of trying to return it, they decide to exploit the situation to their advantage. As they plan to make enough money to afford plastic surgery, Linda and Chad soon realize that their way in over their heads as the situation spirals out of control.
Joel and Ethan Coen‘s dark comedy, Burn After Reading, racks up the Coen Brothers’ biggest laughs at the expense of some colorful characters and their plain stupidity. The movie’s savage humor and quite creative acts of violence make this conspiracy movie an acquired taste similar to the Brothers’ early films including Raising Arizona and Fargo.
2 ‘Murder at 1600’ (1997)
During an international crisis, Detective Harlan Regis (Wesley Snipes) is assigned to investigate the murder of a secretary who was found in the White House bathroom. Regis agrees to work the case with Secret Service agent, Nina Chance (Diane Lane) and as political tensions reach a breaking point, Regis and Chance uncover that the senseless crime is a potential government cover-up.
Murder at 1600 is one of the most underrated conspiracy films of all time that also stars Alan Alda who is best known for his iconic role as Hawkeye on the hit television show, M*A*S*H. Snipes and Lane are a powerhouse duo in this in-depth political thriller that takes audiences through the twisted and corrupt inner workings that come with politics.
1 ‘Enemy of the State’ (1998)
When a videotape of a Congressman’s murder ends up in the hands of a family man, Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith) he becomes authorities’ number one suspect in the homicide. With the help of a former intelligence officer (Gene Hackman), Dean tries to prove his innocence while also bringing the real killer, a corrupt NSA official (Voight) to justice.
Smith cements himself as a headlining action star in Tony Scott‘s Enemy of the State. The film cultivated an intriguing fan theory of being a continuation of Hackman’s 1974 psychological thriller, The Conversation, in which he plays a paranoid surveillance expert who overhears the plot of a murder.
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