John McEnroe wasn’t tennis’ first bad boy. Jimmy Connors threw his racket and yelled at umpires long before him. But the brash New Yorker did elevate tantrum-throwing into a sort of performance art. Part of his white-hot temper was, no doubt, sincere. But part of it was a show – a way to turn the crowd against him and stoke his competitive fire. Still, it all would have been pointless showboating if he wasn’t such a magician on the court. Tennis hasn’t been quite the same since he hung up his whites and retired. So you might think that the thrilling new sports drama Borg vs. McEnroe would be more drawn to the guy who Fleet Street once christened “The Superbrat” over the more serene and seemingly emotionless Swedish champion Bjorn Borg. But you’d be wrong.
Written by Ronnie Sandahl (2014’s Underdog) and directed by Janus Metz (2010’s Armadillo), Borg vs. McEnroe chronicles what was arguably the most epic tennis match of all time – the 1980 Wimbledon men’s final. A five-set slugfest between two totally different personalities and playing styles, the match was like a heavyweight title fight, tennis’ Rumble in the Jungle, but with strawberries and cream and Pimm’s Cups. In one corner, the 21-year-old McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) with his soft serve-and-volley touch; in the other, the 24-year-old Borg (Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason), whose flawless baseline strokes were almost robotic in their lethal precision. It was the stiletto vs. the sledgehammer. The volcano vs. the iceberg.
Borg vs. McEnroe isn’t your usual phony recreation of one single and telling momentous sporting event. It’s far more interested in the psychology of these two rivals and polar opposites – in what made them tick long before they stepped onto the grass at Winbledon’s hallowed Centre Court.
Maybe because so much has already been written about McEnroe (including by himself) or perhaps because the film was financed by Scandinavian money, it’s Borg who gets the deeper treatment in the story. It’s not a bad choice, especially since it turns out that there’s so much more discover in the seemingly unknowable Swede. But the movie’s biggest revelation – at least it was a revelation to me – is just how alike these two men were beneath their outward personas. Behind his sex-symbol good looks and flowing golden Abba locks, Borg it turns out, was a pretty tortured guy. As a young tennis prodigy (the young Borg is at times played by his own son, Leo), Borg was a hothead and a discipline case. Simmering beneath his stoicism as a pro was a tangle of insecurities that his coach (Stellan Skarsgård) and fiancée (Tuva Novotny) struggled to harness.
McEnroe was just as much of a contradiction. He was a rock n’ roll hellion who, deep down, had the brilliant mind of a child genius but rebelled against his demanding parents who seemed to expect perfection. He and Borg understood one another more than anyone watching them would have ever guessed. Maybe that’s why they brought out the best in each other.
After flashing back into their childhoods and rooting us in the demons both men were grappling with by the time they arrived at Wimbledon in the summer of 1980, the film really hits its stride during its reenactment of the championship showdown itself. Borg vs. McEnroe has the benefit here of not being preceded by a long history of great movies about tennis. Aside from the decent-but-hardly-remarkable Battle of the Sexes, the sport can’t claim a Rocky or Hoosiers. So the fact that Borg vs. McEnroe manages to make two non-tennis pros convincing as two of the greatest athletes the sport has ever produced is impressive. The on-court action is adrenalized and dramatic, especially during the excruciating fourth set tiebreak.
Of the film’s two stars, it’s LaBeouf who seems especially well cast here. Until now, the actor has never seemed to measure up to the potential that he promised early on in his career. But there’s something about playing McEnroe that brings out the sort of unpredictable subtlety he’s always been capable of. Maybe it’s because LaBeouf has his own history of hair-trigger TMZ meltdowns that he was able to lock in as McEnroe. The two may not look much alike, but LaBeouf completely inhabits McEnroe’s squalling, short-fused inner storms. It’s the kind of performance that his fans have always suspected he’s had in him. And now, finally, he’s delivered it. B+