In 1980, Swedish tennis superstar Bjorn Borg was gunning for a record-breaking fifth consecutive Wimbledon singles title, and the smart money suggested only one man seriously stood in his way – young American upstart John McEnroe.
Most – if not all – cinema-goers with even a passing interest in tennis will be aware of the outcome, thus making them immune to director Janus Metz’s fast-cut camera trickery, which is designed to crank up the tension. Arguably, therefore, devoting the last quarter of the movie’s 100 minutes to the actual marathon five-set match is counter-productive, leaving less running time to cover the players’ biographies.
Those biographies are explored via disjointed, scattergun flashbacks, which, with additional time and attention, could have made Borg vs McEnroe a much more engrossing watch. Certainly, it may come as news to many that the schoolboy Borg, fast-tracked into his homeland’s Davis Cup squad aged 15, was just as hot-headed and prone to tantrums as McEnroe, before a wise, Zen-like coach turned him into an icy-veined world-beater.
This being a Swedish production, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the Borg story has more flesh on its bones. Sverrir Gudnason’s uncanny physical resemblance to the man he portrays adds weight and authenticity, equally so the subtle performance of Stellan Skarsgård as father-figure coach Lennart Bergelin, while lingering shots of woodland and ice rinks inject a pleasing sheen of Scandi-noir chic.
By comparison, the McEnroe sequences seem a tad lazy, the young pretender’s rebel reputation confirmed by the playing of heavy metal cassettes in his hotel room and the wearing of a Ramones T-shirt, Metz also shoehorning a New York Times quote about Mac being “the worst representation of American values since Al Capone” into the mix. The uneasy relationship between McEnroe and his domineering, goals-oriented parents is touched upon intermittently, but deeper investigation might have helped say more about what motivated him.
Whereas Gudnason has a blanker canvas to fill with the private, publicity-shy Borg, Shia LaBeouf is tasked with inhabiting a McEnroe whose profile and personality reached beyond the back pages from the get-go. Older viewers may remember caricatures by Griff Rhys Jones in Not the Nine O’Clock News or impressionist Roger Kitter (in the guise of “The Brat”), who reached the UK Top 20 with the novelty song Chalk Dust: the Umpire Strikes Back, while more recently McEnroe himself has mocked his angry youth via appearances in Curb Your Enthusiasm and 30 Rock.
It’s to LaBeouf’s credit that his take on the man only occasionally rants and rages, but in all truth the script never really gives him an opportunity to go into meltdown, apart from one scene in which single-minded sporting rivalry threatens his personal friendship with fellow American pro Peter Fleming. For the most part he comes across as a supporting character in a Borg biopic.
Similarly, Metz uses broad brush strokes to paint others in the protagonists’ orbit. Tuva Novotny as Borg’s chain-smoking fiancée provides an on-off sounding board but is ultimately little more than set-dressing, Vitas Gerulaitis (Robert Emms) is reduced to an underachieving boozy playboy, and every English commentator speaks in the plum-posh voice of Noël Coward or John Mills on the bridge of a Second World War battleship.
Yet, while the media of the time took glee in establishing the sportsmen’s perceived respective personas of iceman and irritant, in this telling they are both borderline unlikeable – hardly the stuff of role models.
A smattering of avoidable (albeit historically accurate) F-words from La Beouf, coupled with gratuitous topless shots decorating a pointless scene set in famed New York nightclub Studio 54, have cemented the film’s 15 certificate, but a couple of painless cuts for airline or TV consumption will, in time, make it accessible for all.
An on-screen caption at the start of the film claims the men’s first face-off in a Grand Slam final “changed tennis for ever”, but what follows never really backs up the statement, or explains how. The real drama was played out over four hours on Saturday 5 July 1980; this is merely a slight, if solidly entertaining, belated overture.
Borg vs McEnroe is released in cinemas on Friday 22 September