Football has “Rudy” and “Remember the Titans.” Baseball has “Pride of the Yankees” and “Field of Dreams.” Even hockey has “Slapshot.”
Now the sport of tennis has its first truly great film with “Borg vs. McEnroe.”
Following the events that led up to and through their infamous match at Wimbledon in 1980, “Borg vs. McEnroe” is a cerebral, dynamic drama that closely examines the inner psychology of elite athletes.
Helmed by Danish director Janus Metz, the film finds Swedish tennis superstar Björn Borg on the cusp of his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title only to clash with a brash twenty-one-year-old New York prodigy in John McEnroe.
Metz and screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl go to great lengths highlighting the stark contrast between the two players. Borg defends from the back line while McEnroe aggressively bullies his way to the net. Borg plays with a robotic like precision whereas McEnroe’s frenzied passion rifles through every shot.
There’s a natural symmetry to the characters that extends through the performances into the script and especially in the dynamic cinematography from Niels Thastum.
As Borg, Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason embodies the cerebral while not so subtly hinting at an inner turmoil holding the star player back. It’s easy to see the years of training Borg endured from a young boy weathered into Gudnason’s stoic face and the Swede does a remarkable job of balancing Borg’s fragile emotional state.
In a perfect collision of actor and role, the consistently controversial Shia LaBeouf emotionally pummels his way through a scene chewing performance as McEnroe. For a turn that’s filled with bravado and unrelenting machismo, the part also represents LeBeouf’s most nuanced, entrancing performance to date.
As much as LeBeouf as McEnroe could easily become a train wreck, it somehow doesn’t. LeBeouf tries so hard to become the perfect McEnroe that it ironically feels effortless, a surprisingly astounding display of acting audiences have longed for from the beleaguered young star but never thought we’d get.
The perennially solid character actor Stellan Skarsgård doesn’t disappoint as Borg’s longtime mentor and coach Lennart Bergelin and Tuva Novotny fares well as Borg’s devoted fiancee Mariana.
Metz dives into his directorial debut in narrative features with gusto, delivering a deliberate, yet moderately paced drama that occasionally grinds its gears. While the filmmaker succeeds at letting audience is in behind the scenes with both Borg and McEnroe, the movie enters childhood flashback sequences once or twice too often in a way that might jostle casual viewers.
On a technical level, “Borg vs. McEnroe” dazzles with cinematic excellence. There’s a pronounced linear quality to both shot selection and framing that gives the entire film a very measured feel.
When it comes to the actual tennis on screen, Metz and Thastum bring added life to what could be portrayed as a particularly monotone sport. Each point played out in the film possesses a dance like quality, replicating real events down to a single foot step and backhand. Tennis is rarely as tense as the iconic match the film seeks to recreate, and “Borg vs. McEnroe” convincingly maximizes the action and intrigue.
Unfortunately, the decision to release the film early in the year usually in theaters and on-demand will prove to make this terrific genre film both a box office and awards season casualty.
LeBeouf’s work as McEnroe is significantly better then Steve Carell’s similar turn in a Golden Globe nominated performance as Bobby Riggs in last year’s “Battle of the Sexes.” For as much as he may deserve acclaim, the lack of eyeballs on foreign independent film and LeBeouf’s personal struggles will prove to make “Borg vs. McEnroe” invisible this fall.
One of the better sports films in years, “Borg vs. McEnroe” is certainly worthy of more eyeballs than it will ultimately get it and is well worth seeking out in theaters or streaming on demand at home.