A film review by Craig J. Koban April 29, 2018


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





Everyone that's 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 consecutive  title.  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 widely known.   

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 reckoned with.   

McEnroe (Shia 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. 

Gudnason and 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. 

My only little grievance with BORG VS. McENROE is that - seeing as the film was financed with Scandinavian money - its focus seems a bit more skewed towards Borg, and I would have appreciated a tad more screen time devoted to McEnroe.  Yet, the film still triumphantly emerges as an intoxicating chronicle of two very different athletes that professionally collided one fateful day in a Herculean grudge match that would be lauded for decades.  I ultimately respected how BORG VS McENROE never tries to paint its competitors into simplistic black and white, hero versus villain labels to make the story more easily digestible.  This is a challenging and rewarding portrait of opposites, yet equals, both of which had their own share of personal demons.   And they never hated each other, which is usually a requirement in so many sports films to drum up conflict.  As an end credit title card relays, Borg and McEnroe became close confidants in the aftermath of their Wimbledon showdown, with the former eventually serving as the latter's best man at his wedding.  Watching BORG VS. McENROE it's easy to see how this unlikely friendship developed as an offshoot of their sport and one of the most famous tennis battles of all time

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