Film Review: "Borg McEnroe" - To Live & Die On The Tennis Court
The stroke of genius in titling the famous Bjorn Borg/John McEnroe 1978 tennis rivalry Borg McEnroe is in its omission of the “vs”. Unlike many sports dramas movies, which are as baldly manipulative as the ghostwritten autobiographies on which they are usually based, Borg McEnroe doesn't manoeuvre world-class tennis pros Bjorn (Sverrir Gudnason) and John (Shia LeBeouf) into a conflict in which something more than a Wimbledon victory - love, honour, some other cliched thing – is on the line. Because Borg McEnroe regards Bjorn's attitude of victory and defeat being a matter of life and death with the utmost seriousness; what could be higher stakes than that? Likewise, John McEnroe, though not as placid as Bjorn and is in fact usually a frightening madman (“Shut the fuck up!” he screams at a crowd without much provocation) only finds fulfilment by leaving everything he's got on the court.
Danish director Janus Metz helmed Borg McEnroe. He imbues the tennis scenes with idiosyncratic artistry. During solo training sessions, Metz positions overhead shots in such a way that it seems as if the court is a giant lonely canvas and the athlete with the racquet is the painter elegantly and rigorously making art. He abandons that elan for desperate ferocity during the climactic Wimbledon match, where Bjorn and John don't trade volleys so much as they hurl thunderbolts with bloody-minded determination. When there isn't a tennis scene, Metz is content to relinquish the creative wheel and let the performances drive Borg McEnroe. Which is fine! But it's a lot of same-y angst and boiling turmoil – boiling turmoil either expressed or repressed – and it gets a little old, making Borg McEnroe feel longer than it is and also a little uneven.
Cementing Borg McEnroe's unevenness is in how it unsymmetrically divvies up Bjorn and John's parallel stories. Sverrir Gudnason, with his cold blue eyes and manicured stubble, has a steely beauty about him that's appropriate for a pro who's managed to contain the tempest within thanks to years of honing and training. He's believable, sporadically compelling, and slightly uninteresting. Shia LaBeouf, however, is a constant riot as John McEnroe, an unhinged man-child who visibly feeds off his emotions. Emphasis on child; there's an innocence and sincerity to him, even when he's lashing out like a lunatic. LaBeouf is perfect casting here, because LaBeouf exudes that same personality of someone who doesn't know how to affect and probably wouldn't care to if he knew how. Which is nuts because he's a damn actor after all; all he does is affect. This is to say that LaBeouf, though likely an unpleasant and bad person, is a natural and gutsy performer who will hold the screen together with his bare hands and teeth if he has to. So naturally the McEnroe half of Borg McEnroe engenders the most sympathy and interest, yet he's only given the spotlight for 20 percent of the movie. It's baffling to me, but Mantz was plainly more interested in telling Bjorn's story. Ol' reliable Stellan Skarsgard has a supporting role as Bjorn's father figure/coach, but Borg McEnroe struggles to find something for Skarsgard to do or be other than sadly prostrate as a fatherly punching bag when his prized protege Bjorn loses his cool and needs someone to lash out on.
Thankfully, Borg McEnroe rises above its middling narrative at the end, when John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg happen upon each other at the airport post Wimbledon. They are endearingly awkward, but there's a deep underlying intimacy to their brief exchange, an unexpressed gratitude that they're finally talking to someone who understands them exactly and immediately. It's an emotional snapshot thoroughly earned. Although one affectionately teases the other that he'll win the next match, they don't part ways as rivals but as complementary halves of a single virtuoso. That they would become the best of friends later in life is more fulfilling for them than any Wimbledon victory; I'd like to think, anyway.