Action and spy movies were always considered “time-wasters” which movie lovers watch for a great time and exciting scenes. However, in the last two decades, things changed and so-called black ops movies became cool and actually really complex pieces of cinema that keep their viewers on their tons. Lots of plot twists, big reveals, and just pure action made black ops movies quite popular. Because of that, we will list the 20 best black ops movies to keep you on your toes.
We will include classics but also newer films that came into prominence and became really popular with action movie lovers. Black ops movies include military movies with spy elements, undercover agents, and just pure hard-core combat that borderlines brutality most of the time. Moreover, we will include movies with all mentioned elements which have huge plot twists. Buckle up because we are starting.
20. American Assassin (2017)
Directed by: Michael Cuesta
Writer(s): Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz
Release date: September 15, 2017
Running time: 111 minutes
Starring: Dylan O’Brien (CIA Agent Mitch Rapp), Michael Keaton (CIA Agent Stan Hurley), Sanaa Lathan (CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy), Shiva Negar (VAJA Agent Annika)
This movie follows the story of the young CIA black ops recruits Mitch Rapp, who helps a veteran of the Cold War to stop a huge nuclear weapon. The rogue nuclear weapon must be stopped from coming into the hands of the Iranian hardliners, who are unhappy with the Iranian government’s deal with the U.S. about nuclear weapons.
American Assassin is a typical fun action movie that keeps viewers on their toes – is a nuclear weapon going to get detonated? Michael Keaton and vengeful Dylan O’Brien are always a joy to watch on screens and they are one the best parts of the movie.
19. Extraction (2020)
Directed by: Sam Hargrave
Writer(s): Joe Russo
Release date: April 24, 2020
Running time: 117 minutes
Starring: Chris Hemsworth (Tyler Rake), Rudhraksh Jaiswal (Ovi Mhajan Jr.), Randeep Hooda (Saju Rav), David Harbour (Gaspar), Priyanshu Painyuli (Amir Asif)
The film follows the story of Australian black ops mercenary Tyler Rake whose mission is to save an Indian drug lord’s kidnapped son in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Things go sideways when Tyler is double-crossed. Rake is a former SASR operator turned black-market mercenary who does odd jobs mostly for underground criminals.
We won’t spoil anything too much – we will just say that the movie is a nonstop action sequence with great acting and cinematic goodness. It also dwells in Bangladesh’s crime underground which is not that much explored in Western media. One of the best black ops movies of 2020, and Netflix is already developing the sequel.
18. Lone Survivor (2013)
Directed by: Peter Berg
Writer(s): Peter Berg
Release date: December 25, 2013
Running time: 121 minutes
Starring: Mark Wahlberg (Hospital corpsman First Class Marcus Luttrell), Taylor Kitsch (Lieutenant Michael P. “Murph” Murphy), Emile Hirsch (Gunner’s mate Second Class Danny Dietz), Ben Foster (Sonar technician Second Class Matthew “Axe” Axelson), Eric Bana (Lieutenant Commander Erik S. Kristensen)
This critically acclaimed movie needs to be on every black ops movie must-watch list because it tells the true story of Operation Red Wings that occurred during the months of June and July of 2005 when Navy SEAL troops needed to track down a vicious Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. The movie was adapted from the book of the same name and presented the casualties, struggles, and dangers that soldiers go through in order to accomplish their missions.
This movie dramatizes the operation a bit for cinematic sake, but does it properly, and is one of the best black ops movies in the last two decades. Lone Survivor was nominated for two Academy Awards in the Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing categories.
17. The Sum of All Fears (2002)
Directed by: Phil Alden Robinson
Writer(s): Paul Attanasio, Daniel Pyne
Release date: May 29, 2002
Running time: 124 minutes
Starring: Ben Affleck (Jack Ryan), Morgan Freeman (William “Bill” Cabot), Bridget Moynahan (Dr. Cathy Mueller), James Cromwell (J. Robert Fowler)
The character of Jack Ryan went through a few adaptations, but this entry is the 2002 movie starring Ben Affleck. The film follows a story of Austrian Neo-Nazi planning to trigger a nuclear war between the United States and Russia, to establish a Nazist superstate in Europe.
Neo-Nazi scientists’ nuclear weapon destroys Baltimore, which prompts Americans to blame Russia for that attack. Jack Ryan realizes the truth, and the faith of the whole world ends up in his hands.
16. Tears of the Sun (2003)
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Writer(s): Alex Lasker, Patrick Cirillo
Release date: March 7, 2003
Running time: 121 minutes
Starring: Bruce Willis (Lieutenant A.K. Waters), Monica Bellucci (Dr. Lena Fiore Kendricks), Tom Skerritt (Captain Bill Rhodes), Cole Hauser (James “Red” Atkins)
Tears of the Sun follows the story of the U.S. Navy Seal team rescue mission during the war in Nigeria, where they need to rescue Dr. Lena Fiore Hendricks, who works for International Humanitarian Aid.
It’s a race against time – Navy SEAL members need to get faster to the hospital where the doctor is before rebels, who are killing anyone who opposes them. Saving refugees, running from rebels, and ultimately sacrificing their lives to save others is what keeps the viewers on their toes. Maybe it kickstarts some tears as well – it is a Bruce Willis film after all.
15. The Gray Man (2022)
Directed by: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Writer(s): Joe Russo, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Release date: July 15, 2022, limited theatre release
Running time: 129 minutes
Starring: Ryan Gosling (Court Gentry / Sierra Six), Chris Evans (Lloyd Hansen), Ana de Armas (Dani Miranda), Jessica Henwick (Suzanne Brewer), Regé-Jean Page (Denny Carmichael)
Even though this movie is getting released for everyone on Netflix on July 22, we will still recommend it as the must-watch black ops movie of 2022. It is new, it is fresh, and has a star-studded cast. The story follows the most skilled CIA mercenary known as Court Gentry, aka Sierra Six, who accidentally uncovers the dark secret of his agency and becomes their primary target to terminate.
Cat and mouse type of hunt around the world with Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans? Sign us up.
14. Green Zone (2010)
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Writer(s): Brian Helgeland
Release date: March 12, 2010
Running time: 115 minutes
Starring: Matt Damon (Roy Miller), Amy Ryan (Lawrie Dayne), Brenda Gleeson (Martin Brown), Greg Kinnear (Clark Poundstone)
Another true story adapted from the book on this list takes place in Bagdad, Iraq, where General Al-Rawi is hiding during the invasion of Iraq and US Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, who is trying to find weapons of mass destruction. Miller later founds out his intel is incorrect which prompts him to uncover a lot of dirty secrets, not just from supposed opponents but from his side as well.
Another hunt that will keep viewers on their toes throughout the whole movie.
13. Jack Reacher (2012)
Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie
Writer(s): Christopher McQuarrie
Release date: December 21, 2012
Running time: 130 minutes
Starring: Tom Cruise (Jack Reacher), Rosamund Pike (Helen Rodin), Richard Jenkins (DA Alex Rodin), Werner Herzog (Zek Chelovek), David Oyelowo (Detective Calvin Emerson)
After five seemingly unrelated lives were taken in the broad light, an Iraq veteran James Barr, who is also a suspect in the killings, hires highly trained ex-military investigator Jack Reacher to help him prove his innocence.
Jack Reacher starts his investigations but starts getting attacked from all sides, and the hunt for the murderer gets even harder. Tom Cruise again proves how he is a master of black ops movies, and his character, Jack Reacher, keeps the viewers on the edge of their sits throughout the whole movie.
12. Ronin (1998)
Directed by: John Frankenheimer
Writer(s): J.D. Zeik
Release date: September 25, 1998
Running time: 121 minutes
Starring: Robert De Niro (Sam Regazolli), Jean Reno (Vincent), Natasha McElhone (Deirdre), Sean Bean (Spence), Stellan Skarsgård (Gregor)
This film follows the story of a team of former special operatives hired to steal a mysterious, heavily guarded briefcase while trying to figure out who is truly loyal and who isn’t.
Realistic car chases through beautiful French cities of Nice and Paris and figuring out which person and organization are truthful, without any interior motives. Great cast, great movie, really interesting plot – definitely watch it!
11. 13 Hours (2016)
Directed by: Michael Bay
Writer(s): Chuck Hogan
Release date: January 15, 2016
Running time: 144 minutes
Starring: John Krasinski (Jack Silva), James Badge Dale (Tyrone S. “Rone” Woods), Max Martini (Mark “Oz” Geist), Dominic Fumusa (John “Tig” Tiegen), Pablo Schreiber (Kris “Tanto” Paronto)
Another book adaptation takes place in Libya in 2012, where six ex-military contractors are tasked to provide security to an unofficial CIA base in Benghazi.
The situation escalates during Gaddafi’s downfall and the Lybian civil war, which is bustling with weapons and violence. During one night, the base is attacked by a group of armed locals who are unhinged after Gaddafi’s death. Only people who want to defend this base are exactly these six protagonists of 13 Hour’s story.
It is intense, and viewers do not know what will happen with the characters and are on the edge of their sits throughout the whole movie.
10. The Accountant (2016)
Directed by: Gavin O’Connor
Writer(s): Bill Dubuque
Release date: October 14, 2016
Running time: 128 minutes
Starring: Ben Affleck (Christian Wolff/The Accountant), Anna Kendrick (Dana Cummings), J.K. Simmons (Raymond “Ray” King), Jon Bernthal (Braxton Wolff), Cynthia Addai-Robinson (Marybeth Medina)
The film follows the story of Cristian Wolff, a mathematical genius who works as a financial accountant for various different companies to hide their dirty money and cover embezzlements and so on. Wolff was diagnosed with a high-functioning form of autism that makes him a genius.
While being investigated by Treasury Department, Wolff agrees to help Dana Cummings, an accountant in another company, and help her look into the fraud suspicions in her firm. It gets complicated from there.
9. Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)
Directed by: Stefano Solima
Writer(s): Taylor Sheridan
Release date: June 29, 2018
Running time: 122 minutes
Starring: Benicio Del Toro (Alejandro Gillick), Josh Brolin (Matt Graver), Isabela Moner (Isabel Reyes), Jeffrey Donovan (Steve Forsing), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Gallo)
A sequel to 2015’s Sicario, follows the story of the war on the U.S.-Mexico border, where drug cartels fight viciously. The American government wants to use this war to find out if the major cartels are smuggling the terrorists across the border. Graver hires Gillick and starts planning on how to kickstart the deadly conflict between cartels.
They manage to do it by assassinating a high-profile lawyer of one of the major drug cartels and kidnaping the daughter of the rival cartel, Isabel. Everything escalates when Gillick and Graver are double-crossed by Mexican police during the operation.
8. The Hurt Locker (2008)
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer(s): Mark Boal
Release date: September 4, 2008
Running time: 131 minutes
Starring: Jeremy Renner (Sergeant First Class William James), Anthony Mackie (Sergeant J. T. Sanborn), Brian Geraghty (Specialist Owen Eldridge), Guy Pearce (Staff Sergeant Matthew Thompson)
A critically acclaimed movie, that won three Academy Awards in 2008, follows the story of Sargeant William James, who joins Bravo Company as a bomb disposal expert sent after their former Sgt. was killed on duty.
James is reckless in his approach and risks his life constantly when diffusing bombs. His comrades are not very happy about that and just want to stay alive and go back home to their families.
7. The Dirty Dozen (1967)
Directed by: Robert Aldrich
Writer(s): Nunnally Johnson, Lukas Heller
Release date: June 15, 1967
Running time: 150 minutes
Starring: Lee Marvin (Major John Reisman), Ernest Borgnine (Major General Sam Worden), Charles Bronson (Joseph Wladislaw), Jim Brown (Robert T. Jefferson), John Cassavetes (Victor R. Franko)
A classic of the black ops genre, The Dirty Dozen paved the way for a lot of movies created today. The film follows the story of a US Army Major who “volunteered” to train twelve military prisoners for a suicide mission. Their mission is to parachute to a heavily-guarded Nazi general staff officers’ retreat to try and assassinate German officers on the leave.
First unofficial Suicide Squad ever? Sign us up.
6. Black Hawk Down (2001)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Writer(s): Ken Nolan
Release date: January 18, 2002
Running time: 144 minutes
Starring: Josh Harnett (SSG Matt Eversmann), Ewan McGregor (SPC John “Grimesey” Grimes), Tom Sizemore (LTC Danny McKnight), Eric Bana (SFC Norm “Hoot” Gibson), Sam Shepard (MG William F. Garrison)
The story follows a true story of a near-disastrous mission in Somalia in 1993. Nearly a hundred U.S. Army Rangers were dropped by a helicopter in the capital city of Mogadishu, to capture warlords leading rebels.
What American soldiers did not expect is a huge resistance from armed locals and two U.S. Army Black Hawks downed, where only one officer survived. A heroic story of U.S. Rangers trying to reach their comrade and try to come out of the situation unscathed. The movie received two Academy Awards in 2002.
5. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer(s): Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Megan Ellison
Release date: December 19, 2012
Running time: 157 minutes
Starring: Jessica Chastain (Maya Harris), Jason Clarke (Dan Fuller), Jennifer Ehle (Jessica Karley), Mark Strong (George Panetta), Kyle Chandler (Joseph Bradley)
Another Academy Award winner on this list with Kathryn Bigelow at the mantle, Zero Dark Thirty follows the story of a final man-hunt by the CIA agency for Osama bin Laden, at one point the most wanted man on the planet, and the one responsible for 9/11 attacks in 2001, which was the biggest tragedy in American modern history.
Maya Harris dedicates her life to finding bin Laden and ultimately terminating him. Her journey from the Middle East to the U.S. helps the CIA agents and American Government in finally finding him.
4. Sicario (2015)
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Writer(s): Taylor Sheridan
Release date: May 19, 2015
Running time: 121 minutes
Starring: Emily Blunt (Kate Macer), Josh Brolin (Matt Gaver), Benicio Del Toro (Alejandro Gillick), Daniel Kaluuya (Reggie Wayne)
Finally, we got to the original Sicario on this list, and boy is it good. The story follows a principled FBI agent, Kate Macer, who is approached to join a special anti-drugs task force that also involves the Department of Defence, and the Department of Justice.
Kate Macer receives orders to go after senior members of major drug cartels. She soon realizes that the task force uses borderline illegal methods in their work, and her morals and professionalism are pushed to the limit.
3. Argo (2012)
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Writer(s): Chris Terrio
Release date: August 31, 2012
Running time: 120 minutes
Starring: Ben Affleck (Tony Mendez), Bryan Cranston (Jack O’Donnell), Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel), John Goodman (John Chambers), Tate Donovan (Robert Anders)
After Iranian militants stormed and took control of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, taking 56 Americans as hostages. Six of them escaped and found refuge in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor.
American institutions finally decide to act after two months and demise a plan where they will send Tony Mendez, a CIA agent, and his crew to act as a Canadian film crew scouting locations to film their sci-fi movie called Argo, and extract their compatriots. An Academy Award winner that needs to be on every must-watch list.
2. The Bourne Identity (2002)
Directed by: Doug Liman
Writer(s): Tony Gilroy, William Blake Herron
Release date: June 6, 2002
Running time: 119 minutes
Starring: Matt Damon (Jason Bourne), Franka Potente (Marie Kreutz), Chris Cooper (Alexander Conklin), Clive Owen (The Professor)
Robert Ludlum’s successful book series of the same name was adapted into a series that brought us one of the best black ops movies ever. Even though the second one The Bourne Ultimatum is considered a bit better, the first movie brought us everything we wanted from a black ops movie – action, suspense, and nail-biting tension.
The story follows a man suffering from psychogenic amnesia trying to find out about his identity during an incriminating conspiracy affecting the CIA. Jason Bourne is probably one of the best action movie characters ever, and Matt Damon does an amazing job portraying him.
1. Mission: Impossible
Directed by: Brian De Palma
Writer(s): David Koepp, Robert Towne
Release date: May 22, 1996
Running time: 110 minutes
Starring: Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Jon Voight (Jim Phelps), Emmanuelle Béart (Claire Phelps), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Vanessa Redgrave (Max)
Ethan Hunt is a secret agent framed for the deaths of his espionage team. Fleeing the government assassin, Hunt breaks into the CIA’s most impenetrable vault and continues to run and prove his innocence.
However, everything escalates when he discovers a shocking truth. Mission: Impossible is one of the best black ops movies ever and every other movie that came after the first installment proved why is that the case. Tom Cruise is the king of action movies, and with these movies, her proves it over and over again. There will be new Mission: Impossible movies coming in 2023 and 2024, and we can’t wait for those dates to come.