“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster,and treat those two impostors just the same”
It is perhaps the game of tennis that fails to lend the emotional gravitas that baseball (Moneyball) or football (Saturday Night Lights) affords. Partly, because the essence of the conflict is an internal clash of psychological temperance and most moviemakers don’t have the requisite competence to pull off that type of production. For the few who try to write a film about tennis, all have failed. And Borg vs McEnroe is no exception.
The Brits, like Kevin Maher (Sunday Times) (“Tennis in movies doesn’t work“) and Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian) (“film feels like a two-hour baseline rally, and it’s not just the rackets that are made of wood“), understood this well. Others did not. With a number of near-perfect reviews from, e.g., Mark Kennedy (AP) and Katie Walsh (Tribune News Service), consisting of little more than a summary of the plot. And, the usual Peter DeBruge (Variety) affirmation, whose herd mentality makes the Variety critic of little use aside from content for promotional material.
The film tells the story of the two men (John McEnroe/Shia LaBeouf and Björn Borg/Sverrir Gudnason): diametrically opposed, seeking to conquer the 1980 Wimbledon title and establish themselves, in very different ways, in the history of the sport. One man in control of his demons, forced into an habitual compulsion of habits, while seemingly on the brink of toppling over. Another, a man unrestrained, fighting for the recognition among the greats and yet unable to corral the better angels of his nature. The two face/off (pun intended) and begin what would eventually be the rise of one and the end of the other.
While making every effort to reach back into their lives and paint a compelling portrait of both men, the film is largely ineffectual. Perhaps no where more than the decision to pre-empt the outcome of the fourth set tiebreaker by writer (Ronnie Sandahl) and director (Janus Metz), while trying to milk the entire episode as if the audience couldn’t remember the spoiler.
Saying all that, Borg vs McEnroe is considerably better than most tennis films, especially recent films like Wimbledon and Battle of the Sexes. And, while Match Point has some tennis in it, I don’t recall that being an even a remotely major theme for us to consider it here. It is fairly well casted, especially getting Stellan Skarsgård, but the dramatics of Shia is nothing compared to his real life antics of yelling at Neo-Nazis and being arrested for public drunkenness. (I actually think he has a lot of potential if he can keep his head focused.)
In the end, the film does not work; and, while mildly amusing, has no long-term value to be worthwhile. Do yourself a favor: watch the highlights and skip on the feature.