Borg vs McEnroe opens with a quote by Andrei Agassi. ‘Every match’, he says, ‘is a life in miniature’. Its use is a very clear statement of intent and a potentially dangerous reference to make as, necessarily, the viewer is compelled to permanently scrutinise the film to see whether or not it’s able to confer any credibility to the notion. It does a fine job, for the most part, but the aim is too ambitious. Inevitably, it falls short.
Borg vs McEnroe takes place around the 1980 Wimbledon Championships, and its enormous media hype around the inevitable confrontation between the two titular characters. In the red corner; Bjorn Borg, controlled and robotic on the court, restless and insecure in his private life, loved by the media and his fans as a true gentleman player. In the blue corner, the young John McEnroe, arrogant and aggressive, haughtily denying every close call that goes against him. Both Sverrir Gudnason and Shia LaBeouf are commendably invested in their respective characters, and particular praise must go to the latter who succeeds in doing a lot with very little. It’s the film’s key problem, the imbalance between the stories of the men on both sides of the net and, indeed, it isn’t too much of a stretch to amend the title to Borg. It’s just occurred to me that that is an unbearably dull title, so maybe that explains it.
Nevertheless, it’s a joy to watch Shia LaBeouf yelling at crowds and judges having clearly found a sporting personality to parallel his showbiz one. Stellan Skarsgaard also does good work in his capacity of compulsory Swede.
The film is redeemed by brilliantly shot tennis scenes, succeeding in the impossible task of making tennis interesting. Finally, though not unimportantly, it’s a particular pleasure to watch a sports movie with absolutely no idea of the outcome.