Borg vs McEnroe is a well-strung sports drama with an ace in the hole in the form of Shia LaBeouf - but there are faults (and double faults!) that prevent the film causing more of a racket, and I’m not just saying that for the sake of contrived tennis puns.
You’ve been misled by trailers with mother! - now get ready to be misled by titles; Borg vs McEnroe is very much a film that belongs to Borg (Sverrir Gudnason). It figures: this is a Swedish film with Swedish bias, and Borg’s childhood, subsequent playstyle and method of preparation for the big games frame an interesting, if overused focal point. But while Borg learns to battle his temper under the guise of a stoic, ‘inhuman’ personality, aided by his coach (Stellan Skarsgård), whose dynamic with Borg we see develop and augment throughout the runtime, McEnroe is left solving calculations as an overworked child.
The problem is that if a film is to stage a rivalry, then a difference in the attention afforded to the two rivals can create an imbalance in the amount we root for them. Thankfully, Borg vs McEnroe (just about) manages to sidestep this difficulty by casting LaBeouf as the tennis equivalent of his celebrity persona. He’s a riot - bemoaning the press’ focus on his off-pitch antics rather than the game (sound familiar?) and causing controversy after controversy. That the public grow to appreciate him after a large stint of despising him is basically fourth wall-breaking. LaBeouf’s performance is enough to distract the audience from his limited screentime, if not his paper-thin characterisation. Perhaps he’s too good - Gudnason’s Borg, by comparison, seems bland.
Similarly, the razzle dazzle of Janus Metz Pedersen’s directorial efforts, and the slick editing of the ‘action’ scenes, are enough to distract the audience from the fact that they’re watching a tennis movie with stakes that are hardly insurmountable, but not enough to distract from the fact that this is simply a spruced up run-of-the-mill sports movie.
Reminiscent of Rush, Borg vs McEnroe delves into childhood, stakes, fame and legacy, succumbing to Speed Racer-esque flashbacks during their final match. It’s hardly new, but the camerawork of the tennis matches are admirable, and thank God the game itself turned out exciting in real life.
Aside from the matches, Borg vs McEnroe is at its best when its not regurgitating sports movie tropes. There are suggestions that the rivalry between the two is fabricated by the media for financial purposes - and that Borg, affectingly, remains the hero of McEnroe’s childhood. The film goes deeper, revealing that Borg and McEnroe are very much alike, in spite of what the media purports. Other subplots, such as the relationships Borg forms with his wife, coach and fans, aren’t nearly as interesting, which is damning considering the amount of screen time afforded to them.
The baseline, er, bottom line is: gripping action and a bombastic LaBeouf performance serves the film well, and its refreshing insight towards fabricated rivalry manages to make a point. The rest of the film doesn’t play ball to nearly the same effect, owing too much to earlier, greater sports flicks. You may not be a fan of tennis, but if you can get over the disproportionate characterisation then you’ll be captivated by the smashing action (and Borg’s silky-smooth voice). Who knows, you may end the film realising you fifteen-love it.