International men of mystery like James Bond and Derek Flint may be pretty good at what they do. Hell, even Austin Powers tends to get the job done when he needs to. But for every suave, badass, and successful super spy we know and love in movies, there are those who, how shall we say this gently, really suck at their jobs.
Sometimes this is because they’re not actually spies, but everyday people thrust into extreme circumstances, sometimes their ineptitude is played for comedic value, and other times they’re simply just not very skilled when it comes to espionage. We thought we’d run through some of our favorite inept, dim witted, and otherwise hapless spies. Let us know how we did and if we missed your favorite lackluster secret agent.
Emmett Fitz-Hume And Austin Millbarge, Spies Like Us
Emmett Fitz-Hume (Chevy Chase) and Austin Millbarge (Dan Aykroyd) are not good spies. But in their defense, the leads of John Landis’ 1985 Spies Like Us were not supposed to be. They play a pair of bumbling, if earnest, low-level government employees who are lead to believe they’re now secret agents while in reality they’re decoys for the real deal. They’re slackers and misfits, not to mention horny, and my just be the best chance we have to avert a nuclear war. God help us all.
Mark Whitacre, The Informant!
Perhaps not a dyed-in-the-wool espionage movie, Matt Damon’s whistleblowing Mark Whitacre in Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 The Informant! does his fair share of spying. And he’s not very good at it. He gathers evidence, snoops in files, and clandestinely records shady business dealings over a period of years, all pretty spy-worthy stuff, right? He also struggles with bipolar disorder, embezzles millions of dollars on his own, and has a complete meltdown along the way. His bizarre behavior, fraud, and other criminal acts lead to him land in jail for longer than anyone he helped put away. That could have gone better.
Nick Rivers, Top Secret!
Brash teen pop sensation Nick Rivers (a very young Val Kilmer), the voice behind hits like "Skeet Surfing," is as unlikely a spy as you’ll ever find. But when he falls for an alluring member of the resistance movement in East Germany, he finds himself in the middle of a plot to rescue an imprisoned nuclear scientist. From the minds of the Zuckers, Top Secret! spoofs deadly serious World War II movies and is notable for being Kilmer’s first role (still one of his best), as well as for featuring performances from legendary actors like Omar Sharif and Peter Cushing.
Dick Steele, Spy Hard
Dick Steele may be a name more suited to porn than espionage, but in Leslie Nielsen’s capably wacky hands, it’s a damn near perfect spy name, too. Agent WD-40, as he is also known, must stop the nefarious General Raconteur (Andy Griffith), who can "arm" himself by attaching robot arms, from unleashing his missile upon the world. Okay, that still sort of sounds like porn, but it’s not, we swear. It’s another in a long line of Nielsen-fronted spoof movies, a kind of Naked Gun for the spy set, and Steele is every bit as incapable, inept, and heroic as Frank Drebin.
James Bond, Casino Royale
Not to be confused with Daniel Craig’s gritty first turn as James Bond, the 1967 Casino Royale presents a very different portrait of the iconic spy, or, more accurately, multiple versions of the legendary secret agent. Featuring multiple Bonds, played by actors including David Niven and Peter Sellers, not to mention Woody Allen as Jimmy Bond, the film is chaotic and a bit incoherent, sometimes hilarious, sometimes not. The plot makes about as much sense as the multiple Bonds, and while it’s an oddity, it’s certainly an oddity worth checking out, this isn’t your average spy flick.
Wallace Ritchie, The Man Who Knew Too Little
On a trip to see his brother, Des Moines native Wallace Ritchie (Bill Murray) is mistaken for a spy and has to foil an international assassination plot in 1997’s The Man Who Knew Too Little. That’s a tall task for a trained agent, let alone an improve actor from Iowa. Not one of Murray’s top tier performances, he carries what is a rather lackluster movie, bumbling through one sticky espionage scenario after another (including inadvertently defusing a bomb) in this send up of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Though there are still enough twists and weird touches to make this worth a watch.
Richard Harlan Drew, The Man With One Red Shoe
Remember when Tom Hanks made wacky comedies? It’s hard to imagine any of his modern characters wearing mismatched sneakers, but when Richard Harlan Drew is randomly selected out of a crowd in The Man With One Red Shoe, it’s the starting point for an off the wall comedy thriller. Essentially another case of mistaken identity, Drew is a concert violinist who in inadvertently drawn into the world of international espionage and a personal feud between CIA agents. There are gadgets and action and all the trappings of all your favorite spy movies, all topped with a preposterous what-the-hell-is-going-on sensibility.
Phil Moscowitz, What’s Up, Tiger Lily?
For his directorial debut, What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, Woody Allen took a Japanese detective movie, International Secret Police: Key of Keys, and replaced all of the dialogue. The result is a comic take on a James Bond-style espionage thriller, tracking secret agent and "lovable rogue" Phil Moscowitz, who has been tasked by Grand Exalted High Majah of Raspur, "a nonexistent but real-sounding country," to find a secret egg salad recipe. Yep. Strange and manic and inventive, Tiger Lily still stands as one of Allen’s most memorable films, and is more than a juvenile exercise, a clever, radical, if disjointed undertaking.
Maxwell Smart, Get Smart
Based on the classic 1960s spy parody of the same name, 2008’s Get Smart follows Maxwell Smart, Steve Carell taking over the role made famous by Don Adams. An analyst for intelligence agency CONTROL, Max dreams of becoming a field agent, but it’s not until a series of remarkable events go down that he gets his chance to shine and show what he can do by cluelessly bumbling his way through saving the world from the nefarious KAOS. Seriously, he runs out of gas in his fancy spy car, and though he is successful, this is not the guy you normally want in charge of saving the day.
Franklin Foster And Tuck Hansen, This Means War
A spy movie starring Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, and Reese Witherspoon sounds like it has potential, right? But what about a romantic spy comedy starring those three? That’s what 2012’s This Means Wars delivers, and it follows Franklin Foster (Pine) and Tuck Hansen (Hardy), two badass CIA agents and best buddies who come into conflict when they both fall for the same woman (Witherspoon). Not only do they try their damnedest to take each other out, they completely ignore their prime directive and let their personal feelings get in the way of protecting the country. You don’t want your safety in the hands of two dudes who are more concerned about their love lives than with saving the day, do you?
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