I’m sure when Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe faced each other at the 1980 Wimbledon match, it was astonishing to watch, and to the credit of director Janus Metz, he draws you into the intensity of that showdown when the game finally begins. Unfortunately, the entirety of Borg/McEnroe is pitched at the level of a myth, and the problem with adapting real-life sports is that the mythic status already falls into place. There are winners and losers based on athletic accomplishment. You don’t have to work too hard to distinguish a good sporting event from a bad one if you’re even fleetingly familiar with how the game is played. What we need from these kinds of movies is to bring the story back down to Earth and provide the nuance the ecstatic sports writers left out. Sadly, the only insight Metz can gleam is that Borg wasn’t as icy as he appeared and McEnroe was a little more soulful than his raging tantrums let on.
The movie starts at the final of the 1980 Wimbledon before looping back to the beginning of the tournament and sometimes even going further back as we follow the careers of Swedish, four-time Wimbledon champ Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and controversial rising star John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf). Borg hopes to win a record fifth-straight Wimbledon and forever cement his legacy while McEnroe was looking for his first title. Borg has a reputation for being borderline robotic, a slave to routine and form who never shows his emotions while McEnroe, prone to tantrums on the court, finds himself cast as the villain in their showdown. As the main story builds towards their Wimbledon match, we continue to flashback, mostly with Bjorn learning to control his emotions and a bit with McEnroe trying to impress parents who always demand more from their talented son.
The problem is that Ronnie Sandahl’s screenplay never probes much deeper, basically treating the players’ private lives as a revelation when really it’s just an inverse of their public personas, which isn’t that surprising. Few people are one way all the time, so it stands to reason that the aloof Borg might harbor some deep emotions and that McEnroe isn’t always a major jerk. And—surprise!—even though they’re rivals on the court, they share a competitive spirit that can be at turns empowering and destructive. It turns out that people who devote their lives to sports tend to be more competitive than the average person.
And yet Metz casts this as the heart of his movie, treating their personalities as surprising revelations in a clash of the titans. While we never learn much about the intricacies of their games or why Borg and McEnroe were exceptional tennis players beyond “wanting it more” (sorry, every other tennis player in the world at the time; should have been hungrier, I guess), there’s a deep love of the game, but one that will probably only appeal to people who already know the story. When the movie finally reaches the fateful match, it achieves a fever pitch that’s on par with its opening quote from Andre Agassi that equates tennis with life itself.
It’s fine to be enthusiastic about your source material, but Borg/McEnroe feels like the work of a fan first and a storyteller second. There’s a deep admiration for the game, but one that doesn’t really bother to explain it to neophytes. Gudnason and LaBeouf both give great performances, but the script never gives them much to work with beyond “In these scenes you’re icy/hot, and in these scenes you’re angry/reserved.” The most complex character ends up being Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård), Borg’s coach who has to balance between nurturing the athlete and pushing him to succeed. Bergelin feels like a balancing act whereas Borg/McEnroe constantly feel like they’re being reduced to the level of puff pieces that air before the game.
For all the enthusiasm Metz brings to the table, Borg/McEnroe seems more about reinforcing a narrative that already exists rather than picking it apart to see what makes it tick. With characters so broadly drawn, it feels like the script is forcing them into particular roles rather than trying to capture the real complexities of human beings. That’s fine if all you care about is the tennis match, but you have about an hour and twenty minutes before you get there.
Borg/McEnroe does not currently have a U.S. release date.
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