Seldom do sports dramas work. They tend to be clunky efforts at condensing hours of sporting action into a few minutes whilst explaining the rules of engagement for those unfamiliar … oh, and leaving enough room to tell an engaging story. Although Borg vs. McEnroe suffers from these problems, it packs just enough narrative punch to elevate itself from the pack.
Swedish Director Janus Mets has a background in documentaries, so it’s little wonder that he has gravitated towards telling a story “inspired by true events”. The intense rivalry between the two tennis greats, Björn Borg and John McEnroe, is no secret, nor is the result of the Wimbledon final around which the film focusses. But where the film covers new ground is in telling the background of the two.
The film examines two wildly different sporting philosophies—the brash expressive American versus the cool focussed Swede. However, it was interesting to learn that both had similar temperaments in their adolescent years, often succumbing to wild outbursts and unsavoury on-court antics. Although, Borg was taught at a young age by his coach, Lennart Bergelin (played by the evergreen Stellan Skarsgård) to channel his anger through his stroke play. McEnroe, as many know, did quite the opposite, emptying his anger all over the court, the crowd, and the umpire. Part of the film’s success is due to the casting of Shia LaBeouf in the role of McEnroe. His brattish off-screen persona bleeds so well into the on-screen tennis rascal and when he famously berates the umpire’s “seriousness”, it’s a genuine pleasure to watch. By contrast, the very Hiddlestonesque looking Sverrir Gudnason plays an ice cool Borg holding it all in.
Unfortunately, the complexities of serving up a sports drama proves one rally too many and the film overcooks its own melodramatic remedies; lots of contemplative stares into mirrors, anguish on the training run, torment in the post-run shower, and other yearning moments become a tad overbearing. Like a number one player, this tennis film is better than the rest but still doesn’t feel good enough.
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