By Jim Slotek
With character-shaping flashbacks to their past, the movie centers on what many still consider the greatest Wimbledon final of all time, the four-hour 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6 win for Borg in 1980. It was his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title, but also the match where the young “Superbrat” McEnroe proved his stuff.
The thing is, McEnroe didn’t cooperate with this production. Borg did, to the extent that his teenage son Leo Borg actually plays his dad in flashback scenes. As a result, Borg vs McEnroe is not only one-sided, character-wise, but it’s also more, well, Swedish than it might otherwise be.
Director Janus Metz allows Shia LaBeouf to play McEnroe exactly as we think we know him – and exactly as we think we know LaBeouf. McEnroe’s hostile press conferences are so identical to some of LaBeouf’s similar public performances, the movie becomes almost meta in the scenes involving the American. (The perfection of his casting is not exactly news. This is actually the second time LaBeouf has been offered the role of McEnroe, but the first he accepted).
Insofar as there is character development at all on that side of the title, it involves McEnroe’s mother giving him hell for not ace-ing a near-perfect school test. But otherwise, LaBeouf’s McEnroe is painted in various shades of asshole (up to and including not talking to opponents on game day, even best friends, and presumptuously making charts of how he'd progress at the tournament).
Metz’ mostly-Borg theme seems to be that the “Ice-Borg” was actually more like McEnroe at heart than most people knew. He was an angry young man (played at different ages by Leo Borg and Marcus Mossberg), often suspended for his tantrums on the court.
The character arc, such as it is, involves his temper being “Swede-ed” out of him by his coach and past Wimbledon champ Lennard Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård). So we’re left with a repressed Swedish hero (Sverrir Gudnason), whose inner turmoil comes out in bursts of anal-retentiveness (the same car must take him via the same route to every Wimbledon, his room must be at a constant 15 degrees C to slow down his heart rate, etc.).
It’s a slow analysis-session march to the match we’re all waiting for (punctuated by scenes of sports-publicity that fairly shout the obvious, that the match will be tennis-machine Borg versus the uncontrolled Super-Brat).
Unveiled at the Toronto International Film Festival at the same time as the more entertaining, but less serious Battle of the Sexes (the Steve Carell/Emma Stone film about the Bobby Riggs/Billie Jean King hype-fest), Borg vs McEnroe does have a more imaginative approach to presenting the actual game. Metz Foley-mixes every shot like a cannon, and shoots the often-slo-mo action from eccentric angles (including a lot of overhead, which is a view of the game nobody’s ever seen except from a drone or, maybe, the Goodyear Blimp).
In the end, we’ve learned a fair bit from Borg vs McEnroe about what was behind the façade of Bjorn Borg, and very little about John McEnroe that a verbally abused line-judge couldn’t already tell us.
Borg vs McEnroe. Directed by Januz Metz. Starring Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf and Stellan Skarsgard. Opens in Toronto and Vancouver, Friday, April 13.