BORG VS McENROE ½
2018, R, 107 mins.
Sverrir Gudnason as Björn Borg / Shia LaBeouf as John McEnroe / Stellan Skarsgård as Lennart Bergelin / Tuva Novotny as Mariana Simionescu / David Bamber as George Barnes / Björn Granath as Bengt Grive / Robert Emms as Vitas Gerulaitis
Directed by Janus Metz Pedersen / Written by Ronnie Sandahl
familiar with the history of professional sports and tennis will
undoubtedly remember the outcome of the 1980 Wimbledon Championships,
which featured then four-time singles champ, the Swedish born Bjorn Borg
(the number 1 player in the world at the time), facing off against the up
and coming John McEnroe in hopes of attaining an unheard of fifth
The new sports drama BORG VS. McENROE takes its name from that
iconic battle of tennis heavyweights, often considered one of the greatest
matches in the sport's history. Re-capturing such a well established and memorable event is a
thanklessly tricky task for any film, seeing it's deceptively hard to
generate any ample dramatic suspense and momentum when the end result is
The fact BORG VS
McENROE makes this classic showdown thrillingly
intense - despite common knowledge of who won - is a testament to how
enthralling it is, but this Swedish/American production is not just about
the final and proverbial "big match" near its end: It's more
compellingly layered than standard order sports biopics in terms of
tapping into the psychologies of both athletes.
BORG VS. McENROE becomes less about a famous tennis bout and more
about an fascinating study of instinctual behavior and personality
clashes. Very few sports
films give layered and democratic coverage to each side in terms of
chronicling what makes the athletes tick before their inevitable showdown,
but that's where BORG VS McENROE is on sturdy and confident ground.
It paints an intriguing portrait of both Borg and McEnroe as tennis
as obsessive perfectionists that were more alike than their
otherwise polar opposite personalities would suggest.
Like all great sporting match-ups, Borg and McEnroe shared the
common trait of bringing out each other's best games at a pivotal moment
in their careers in front of a world audience.
And what a
virtuoso slugfest the match was! A
tennis game to end all tennis games that involved a five set endurance
test and battle of wills that highlighted what a deeply contrasting set of
play styles that were on display. The 24-year-old Borg kept his emotions
almost robotically in check with his graceful, yet powerful strokes,
whereas the 21-year-old McEnroe matched his dexterously soft serve and
volleys with a verbally hostile, take no prisoners level of hot headedness
on the court. BORG VS. McENROE
is at its best, though, with the slow burn build up to this match that
highlights - with multiple flashbacks and flash forwards - how these two
men's respective paths and childhoods came to frame the types of
respective competitors they would unavoidably become. Borg (Sevirri Gudnason, an absolute physical dead ringer) had
a gentleman-like demeanor on and off the court that contrasted heavily
with his rock star popularity of the time.
As Wimbledon in 1980 draws closer the star begins to reflect on
what winning a fifth consecutive championship would mean for his all-time
stature, and all while he mentally recounts how his coach (the calmly
authoritative Stellan Skasgard) began shaping him at a very young age from
being a simple tennis prodigy and into an unstoppable pro force to be
LeBeouf), on the other hand, was facing a different type of journey on his
way to Wimbledon. His brash cockiness, flippantly argumentative disposition,
and hard partying ways made him a media target leading up to his face-off
against the seemingly unstoppable Borg, but McEnroe was easily as stone
cold focused as Borg was to win, not to mention that he faced an even
larger uphill battle to achieve some level of respect that would help
eclipse his salty reputation for being, well, an asshole.
His frequent media scrums seemed more about his in-match
temper tantrums and not what he adeptly brings to the sport, which meant
that McEnroe battled a cerebral war with the press and himself to get some
much needed respect. Like Borg,
we see in the film how his childhood framed and established his tennis
ways as an adult, leaving McEnroe a somewhat unpredictable wild card.
In anything, though, both men did have the utmost reverence for
their respective talents and understood the threat that both presented at Wimbledon.
By the time the film culminates to their match it's impossible not
to be mesmerized.
Yes, and as
alluded to earlier, there have been countless other sports biopics that end
with a winner take all match in the final act, but BORG VS. McENROE really
hits its aesthetic stride in the manner it re-enacts the championship
showdown, which is judiciously done with a bravura combination of
close-ups, long shots (featuring what I'm assuming are stunt doubles) and
fluid editing to give us a startling sense of verisimilitude that almost
has the stylistic spontaneity of a documentary.
Danish director Janus Metz Pedersen has a real flare for making the action
both exhilaratingly alive, but he also evokes the hellishly excruciating
levels of pure blood and sweat athleticism that was required from both
parties to make it through such a long and arduous contest.
To be fair, it can be argued that the edits between the actors and
stunt performers may stick out a bit too obtrusively from time to time,
but I was nevertheless so immersed in the breathless level of energy that
Pedersen brings to this match of nightmarish physical and mental drain that I
was willing to overlook such nitpicky notions.
The titular tennis war in BORG VS. McENROE is as thrillingly
realized as any I've seen in any other similar genre film.
But, this film isn't
solely about that match. Pederson
is more concerned with exploring the personalities involved and how,
through the entire build up to the match and its aftermath, this fire and
gasoline combination were perhaps more alike than either would ever want
to admit. Both seemed driven
to fanatically compulsive levels about their games: Borg was neurotic to the
point of inviting scorn from his loved ones during his prep, whereas
McEnroe - despite carelessly living it up with friends and enjoying the
nightlife off court before the match - inwardly was just as anal attentive
about his game as his opponent. And
BORG VS McENROE takes its time fleshing out both, especially with Borg
(not surprising considering the film's country of origins), and one of the
more compelling surprises was its reveal of how Borg was arguably just as
mean tempered as McEnroe when he was developing his game and how his coach
had to cultivate him to become the deeply disciplined man both on and off
the court. McEnroe is an
equally contradictory persona here. He's an F-bomb dispensing rebel
that's an unnerving hellion to deal with on the family front as well, but
despite all of that he aspired for greatness and admiration, even though
he clearly wasn't as adored as the golden haired Adonis that was Borg.
LaBeouf are both uniformly superb here, with the former not only
physically looking just like his real life alter ego, but he also taps
into the mindset of a man that was cold and calculated on the outside that
harnessed rage-filled drive on the inside.
LaBeouf, on the other hand, really looks nothing like a young
McEnroe, but he seems to have a field day of encapsulating the man's crazy
fortitude and his short fuelled temper (also, seeing as LaBeouf's real
life career woes as of late have made him the target of industry scorn, so
his casting as McEnroe seems pitch perfectly meta in hindsight).
LeBeouf has struggled over the years and has regrettably become
more of a punch line than a respected thespian, but BORG VS McENROE
unconditionally proves that when he's given just the right juicy part to
sink his teeth into he's a remarkably attuned and confident actor.