Hoai-Tran Bui: Illya Kuryakin from The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

While Man From U.N.C.L.E. boasted two dapper spies, it’s Armie Hammer’s KGB agent Illya Kuryakin who steals the show. Carrying a constant sneer at the prospect of working with Henry Cavill’s CIA agent Napoleon Solo while rocking a flattering black turtle neck, Illya accomplishes the nearly impossible mission of being a suave spy with a heavy Russian accent without veering too far into cartoonish impressions. And he does it with panache.

It’s less the action scenes of the movie that makes Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Hammer’s performance in the Guy Ritchie film so fun – it’s the small, petty moments between the three main characters. The trivial bickering between Illya and Napoleon forms a strong chemistry between the two characters that holds together the sometimes too-sleek film. The scene where Illya and Napoleon argue over Gaby’s (Alicia Vikander) wardrobe is one of the most delightful scenes, especially when Illya pauses to glare at Napoleon and practically spits the line, “It doesn’t. Have. To. Match.” And the chemistry between Illya and Gaby is credit to the two actors, who give life to somewhat staid, if quippy, dialogue. Hammer’s naturally gigantic stature looks slim and elegant in action, but next to the minuscule Vikander, he adopts an almost clumsy gait — making their scenes together all the more endearing.

Yes, I’ve listed off some pretty shallow reasons for the reasons that Illya is a great spy, but to me a great cinematic spy isn’t based on his ability to shoot a target or land a punch. It’s the electricity behind the performance, and the memorable moments in which the spy defies convention that keep me coming back. (Psst Ritchie. I’m still waiting for Man From U.N.C.L.E. 2.)

Lindsey Romain: Harriet from Harriet the Spy

As a kid, I nursed a soft spot not for slick action spies, but for girls who looked and thought like me. I was a Nancy Drew addict, and, naturally, a huge fan of Harriet the Spy, which I still consider something of a young adult masterpiece. Michelle Trachtenberg is excellent as Harriet, a plucky New York pre-teen who gets off on the everyday habits of her neighbors, from the grocery delivery people at her local market to a man in an old warehouse apartment who hoards cats. Her “spying” – which she documents adamantly in a series of notebooks – extends to her friends and classmates, an innocent enough activity until a popular girl steals them and reads them aloud, which sets the world against Harriet and her many curiosities. Her best friends abandon her, her parents force her into therapy, and her moral core is tested – by others, but never by her.

Harriet is really more of a budding investigative journalist than an operative, but her adolescent devotion to the word “spy” is why I’ll still put her in with the James Bonds of the world. She uses her physicality as a tool and a weapon, only she’s a little girl, not an intimidatingly large force. That’s what good spies do, and Harriet is slavish in her practices. She has a set routine so stringent that her friends know not to bother her, her journals are meticulous and organized (what kid didn’t want to run out and buy several composition notebooks and No. 2 pencils after watching this film?), and she never flinches in her belief that what she’s doing is not only important for the world, but important for her – it’s her way of processing the world that’s so thrown out of focus by absent parents and classmates who don’t appreciate her neuroses. I know Harriet is, in part, why I became a writer and journalist, so entranced was I by her way of thinking, her prowess, and her dedication to the craft that I found it tempting – and eventually hard not to – to emulate.

Jacob Hall: Lorraine Broughton from Atomic Blonde

Look, picking a character from 2017 for this list makes me feel like a straight-up garbage person because the past century of movies are filled with great movie spies with long-lasting legacies. And yet, I’m obsessed with Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton, the lead of Atomic Blonde who ventures to Berlin during the tail end of the Cold War and grapples with all kinds of shady figures before cracking their skulls. I adore her. I want more of her.

In many ways, Lorraine feels like the female version of James Bond. “What if 007 was a woman and did literally everything else he does, including seduce beautiful women and beat the stuffing out of small armies of henchmen?” And yet, she is also an evolution of Bond: a proudly queer, proudly female badass whose every decision is informed by her unique perspective and specific physical traits. She fights like a woman (lots of elbows and kicks!), a style that couldn’t be more different than your typical male pugilist. She’s perfectly capable of seducing men and women, doubling Bond’s effectiveness. And, as Atomic Blonde‘s best action scene displays, she’s not invulnerable – watching her catch her breath and recover during a fight turns out to be more thrilling than watching a male action hero breeze through a battle without breaking a sweat.

Lorraine Broughton is a character who deserves a dozen sequels.

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