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Rivalries are so often the beating heart of the sports film. For the likes of Ron Howard’s Rush, Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior or the entirety of the Rocky Franchise, they are the vital element that fuels the narrative’s engine. They thrive on contrasting personalities, variations in style, and can be given added spice if there’s a hero and villain in the dynamic. If that rivalry falters, then so too does the film. Such is the Achilles heel of Janetz Pederson’s Borg Vs McEnroe, a perfectly passable if unremarkable new tennis biopic that’s more like a barely remembered second round blowout then the invigorating grand slam final, recreated in the third act.
Perhaps the most frustrating issue with Pederson’s film is that the title is a bit of misnomer. Borg Vs McEnroe suggests to us an intense mono-a-mono between the two of tennis’s most iconoclastic and greatest talents, that this will be deep exploration of the distinct psyches of men with such seemingly different outlooks but ultimate the same goal. The reality is that the first of those names in the title should be in all caps because really this is Borg’s story; He’s the lead character, he dominates the run time and his fate is clearly the central struggle of the film.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone as why it’s simply titled BORG in its native Sweden, where it was produced, and I suspect the rebranding in non-Scandinavian countries is an attempt at to give the project wider appeal and an added bit of box office takings. This is understandable but the problem here is simple: Bjorn Borg is pretty boring. Notoriously cold, calculating and unflappable on the court, the icy swede’s attitude is great for tennis but not for drama. Sverrir Gudnason isn’t really to blame. He looks the picturesque part and has many of the tennis star’s almost mechanised mannerisms down but there’s a lifeless tension to many of his scenes with his wife, and his coach and confidant Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård).
For him to get the majority of the attention when there’s an arguably more fascinating figure on the other side of the court is bit like only listening to Hillary Clinton soundbites from a presidential debate. While the most the action takes place in the run-up to the 1981 Wimbledon final between the titular foes – often hailed one of the greatest matches the sport has ever seen – we still have to get a greatest hits, by the numbers round up of Borg’s life. While he had his struggles, it would hard to suggest that he ever really struggled. We see his teenage version get kicked out of a tennis club for his outbursts and him getting upset at losing a match but these aren’t exactly insurmountable obstacles.
Shia LaBeouf’s turn as the infamously hot-headed McEnroe is doubtlessly the strongest component here. Unlike Gudnason’s performance, this isn’t really an impression, as the American actor plays the part like a more restrained version of those intense motivational YouTube videos he made a while back. Anyone who knows the ills of LaBeouf’s troubled recent history might well see him taking the role as an attempt to find some catharsis – he has spoken recently about how he has always identified with McEnroe’s behaviour on and off the court. Regardless, even if he doesn’t look like the former pro, his volatile eruptions are the most believable things about the picture.
Still, McEnroe’s past isn’t explored as much as it should be. There’s a humorously short flashback to 1979 that has the character entering a therapist’s office but we don’t see any of the session. Why did he go? Who knows, the film would rather explore the fact that Borg is unhappy that he can’t remember which garage door he used to hit his tennis ball off of as a kid. Of course the irony of the film is that both Borg and McEnroe were hotheads growing up but used vastly different methods to deal with on the court. The Swede’s frozen disposition, an attempt to bottle up a repressed rage that would distract his game if he let it get to him while the brash yank would let those frustrations explode out on the court to fire him up.
The final act and big face off is ultimately a disappointment, a summation of Borg Vs McEnroe as a whole in that we already know how its going to play out and there’s nothing about how it’s shown that surprises us. Tennis is perhaps too fast a game to recreate on film but even the famously tight fourth set tie break can’t muster any real tension, which is evident by the fact that we cut to about 17 different commentators who have tell us all how tense it is. A Sunday night telly watch, Borg Vs McEnroe never gets off its feet to land a good enough, knock out serve.