Tennis legends Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe's epic rivalry hits the big screen with a fierce backhand. Borg vs. McEnroe is a Swedish production about their first meeting in the 1980 Wimbledon final. The film is primarily seen from Borg's perspective as the world's number one player. He had ruled the sport for five years, but a hurricane from America was heading his way. John McEnroe was a volatile, incredibly athletic player upending the "gentleman's" game. Borg vs. McEnroe captures the essence of the players, the pressures they faced, and their thrilling match. The film is not in the league of last year's Battle of the Sexes, but more than holds its cinematic serve.
Sverrir Gudnason stars as Bjorn Borg. The film opens in 1980 at his home in Monaco. Borg was a rock star in the sports world, at the peak of his fame. He was hounded everywhere by adoring fans and paparazzi. Borg was caught in a maelstrom of activity. He was about to be married, beset by lucrative business offers, and heading for Wimbledon. He had won four times in a four. The fervor of winning an unprecedented fifth straight had reached a deafening crescendo.
Shia LaBeouf co-stars as John McEnroe. Tennis had never seen a player like McEnroe. The brash American played angry. He cursed nonstop, yelled at umpires, spit on the court to show his disgust. He was reviled by the establishment, but there was no doubting his talent. It was widely expected that McEnroe would tear through the competition at Wimbledon. Then finally give the world the most anticipated match in years, Borg vs. McEnroe.
The film shows how driven these men were. While they seemed quite different on the outside, they shared a boiling desire for greatness. Borg vs. McEnroe portrays the men in their youth through flashbacks. Borg was a confused, angry teen at odds with almost everyone in the Swedish training circuit. He becomes the protégé of Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard), who trained him to bottle his emotions, and direct that energy into his game. McEnroe's upbringing doesn't get nearly as much screen time. His parents, particularly his mother, had impossible standards. He was instilled with a ferocious drive. While Borg was a picture of calm in his game, McEnroe let everything out.
The lead performances are very good. Sverrir Gudnason is on edge throughout. Borg felt the weight of expectation. No one would remember he won four Wimbledons in a row, only if he lost the fifth. Gudnason is tormented by perfection. Shia LaBeouf serves an ace as McEnroe. He was furious that the media did not respect his game. McEnroe wore his heart on his sleeves. Tennis fans will marvel at how LaBeouf captures McEnroe's famous tirades. The two actors deftly portray these legendary players at their peak.
The direction by Danish filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen volleys back and forth. The tennis matches are superb. He builds up tension beautifully with slick editing and camerawork. He's also good in depicting the strain on the players' personal lives. Where he goes awry is merging the two stories together. Pedersen is tit for tat in his approach; so much so that the film falls into a predictable rhythm. We have somber music for Borg, then blaring rock and roll for McEnroe. It's unusual that the production team didn't see this error in their final cut. It diminishes Borg vs. McEnroe greatly.
Borg vs. McEnroe has Bjorn Borg at the forefront. Fans of John McEnroe be forewarned, he is secondary in this story. The film is equal parts Swedish and English language. It has a Scandinavian look and feel, with tighter, more focused cinematography. The script by Ronnie Sandahl does a great job explaining the game of tennis and why their meeting was so important. You do not have to be a fan to appreciate this movie. On the flipside, diehard tennis fans will gobble this up like match point in a fifth set tiebreaker.
From Neon Pictures, Borg vs. McEnroe is a wonderful homage to two great tennis players. It shows the value of sportsmanship and competition. Shia LaBeouf gets a lot of headlines for his erratic behavior. It's good to see him excelling again as an actor in his craft.