Editor-in-Chief William Baxter finds out whether Shia Labeouf’s latest film is an ace or a double fault
From the outset, I think it’s important to state that I know nothing about tennis. The sport, the players and its history are all mysteries to me. In short, I’m not a tennis fan. Borg vs. McEnroe is a tennis film. It is made for tennis fans. Again, I am not one. I am also not a fan of Borg vs. McEnroe. That said, Borg vs. McEnroe is not a bad film. It has faults, but it is neither offensive nor horrifically boring. It has a cohesive plot. The problem, sadly, is that it is about as exciting as two-week old strawberries with off-cream. Honestly, the subsequent crippling food poisoning would probably be more interesting.
Plot-wise, the film is exactly what I expected, even with my as previously stated very low knowledge of tennis. All of the action is at the end, as four-time Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) faces rival John McEnroe (Shia Labeouf) in the 1980 Mens’ Singles Final, widely described as one of the best matches in history. Before this final 20 minutes (which is mostly done well), each player is given a lengthy introduction as the action takes us from the early stages of the tournament to the final via some clumsily inserted childhood sequences. These almost entirely focus on Borg rather than McEnroe (in Sweden the film title drops any reference to McEnroe, wisely noting the under representation of the American player’s background). In general these are pretty awkward, and despite some hard work from Borg’s son Leo as the young star, I feel the film fails to benefit much from these sections. Intended to display young Borg’s fiery temper (perhaps made a little too similar to McEnroe’s famous on-court tantrums), they instead cause a disconnect in Borg’s character arc. Put simply, the two strands belong in two different films.
Despite this, there are some really good elements to Borg vs. McEnroe. Cinematography is mostly beautiful and original, with overhead shots during the match particular highlights. LaBeouf excels as the volatile McEnroe, exposing genuine vulnerability in the character. Stylistically, the film is dead-on, with costuming, scenery and general feel capturing the 1970s vibes nicely. At the very least, Borg vs. McEnroe is visually a pleasant film.
Its shortcomings are however probably more attention-grabbing. I’ve already mentioned the lack of interest in McEnroe’s story; far more noticeable is the one-dimensional nature of every other supporting character in the film. Stellan Skarsgård, playing Borg’s coach, tries hard to inject life in to a thin character, and the film would benefit massively by extending his screen time and backstory. The same can be said about Tuva Novotny’s role as Borg’s fiancé. Pacing is an issue throughout the film – at the start the actions jumps around haphazardly whilst lingering in all the wrong places, whereas the end of the film feels a little rushed – a pre-credits sequence detailing the next stages of both players’ lives doesn’t help. Montage-style flashbacks during the final match reduce Borg vs. McEnroe to the level of parody, at best making it feel incredibly dated.
VERDICT: All of these problems create a difficult film. The stakes never feel particularly high, and if you know the result of the final before watching (I didn’t) I honestly can’t see how Borg vs. McEnroe would hold your interest. This’ll surely show up on Netflix in months, so unless you’re itching for a mediocre exploration of 1970s tennis, I can’t see a reason to head to the cinema.