Borg vs McEnroe (2017)

  • Time: 100 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | Sport
  • Director: Janus Metz Pedersen
  • Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Sverrir Gudnason, Stellan Skarsgård


The story of the 1980s tennis rivalry between the placid Björn Borg and the volatile John McEnroe.


  • Borg McEnroe is a study in contrasts of two of the greatest tennis players that ever played as they prepare to meet in one of, if not the greatest tennis matches of all time. The players in question are Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), the battlefield the 1980 Wimbledon final.

    Going into tournament, Borg was the four-time Wimbledon men’s champion gunning for a record-breaking fifth consecutive title. Described as “pure perfection, zero emotion,” the Swede was like playing against a sledgehammer., it was impossible not to be crushed by his brutal efficiency. McEnroe, on the other hand, was an American on the rise, the hotheaded superbrat who would slice and stab until his opponents bled to death, and who was hungry for his first Wimbledon title.

    The stakes are obviously high on the professional front, but even higher personally. Both men want to be the champion, to be deemed the best in the world, but there can only be one winner. For a time, the intrigue lies in observing how both predictably different and surprisingly alike these two personalities are. As a teenager, Borg was every bit as volatile a player as McEnroe is – throwing rackets about, challenging calls, foaming like a rabid dog – but coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard, taking on his first native-speaking role in nearly a decade) teaches him channel that into his gameplay, to be, as the other players note, an iceberg on the outside, but a volcano waiting to erupt on the inside.

    McEnroe, meanwhile, catches all the attention for being the enfant terrible of tennis with his foulmouthed, disruptive antics on the court. He’s constantly having to keep his temper in check off the court as well as the press are more interested in what he thinks about Borg than in asking him about his own game. Yet beneath all the bad boy behaviour there lies an extremely disciplined athlete, which Borg recognises along with the hunger and passion that used to drive him. Borg may still love the game, but he’s tired of everything that comes with it – the constant attention from press and fans, the loss of privacy, his life being scheduled with games and sponsorship appearances for the next several years.

    Though the title gives Borg and McEnroe shared billing, the film itself is ever so slightly slanted towards the former (not unexpected considering it is a Swedish-funded production). Initially, this focus works against the film if only because Borg is such a stoic figure that LaBeouf’s well-depicted McEnroe is the more compelling character by default, but the balance is redressed with Gudnason’s portrayal, which suggests the turmoil simmering behind the Swede’s sphinx-like facade. The rivalry between the two is palpable along with the deep respect that would be the foundation for their subsequent friendship.

    Strangely, the much-heralded showdown is not quite as rousing as one would hope, though director Janus Metz certainly makes it an engrossing match to observe with creative camera angles and commentary whose urgency elevates what is happening onscreen.

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  • In Borg vs McEnroe (my latest review), Shia LeBeouf’s John McEnroe utters, “you cannot be serious” and “you guys are the absolute pits of the world”. This actually happened a year later, not during the 1980 Wimbledon semifinal (which is briefly depicted in “vs”). Oh well. We all get a kick out of seeing John McEnroe throw a tantrum on the tennis court. The filmmakers I suppose, added his famous outburst in just for effect.

    Anyway, “vs” is slow-moving yet intricate. It also lacks excitement but feels saddened and absorbing. Borg vs McEnroe is equal to 2017’s Battle of the Sexes, better than 2004’s cutesy Wimbledon, and less syrupy than 1979’s Players. If I had to rank it in the small throng of tennis movies, it would be near the top.

    Based on a true story, predictable if you know tennis, and relatively accurate in terms of baseline recreation, “vs” chronicles the events leading up to John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg’s famous clash at the 1980 Wimbledon final. Borg and McEnroe met 14 times in their careers with a record of 7-7 between the two of them. Borg vs McEnroe the movie pushes all that aside to handily focus on said final. Torrid behind the scenes stuff, wooden rackets, public cigarette smoking, headbands, mulled grass courts, and bad sportsmanship. It’s all there vividly in “vs”.

    In truth, “vs” is a decent flick. Janus Metz Pedersen’s direction is solid as he creates something that is R-rated and at times, pressure cooked. He does well with various flashbacks and numerous overhead shots of the sweaty tennis action. The way he uses camera angles to film groundstrokes and volleys is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

    Pedersen’s “vs” is also a master thesis in the character development of one Bjorn Borg (played by Sverrir Gudnason who looks like Borg and gets his mannerisms just right). As for the McEnroe persona channeled by Shia LeBeouf, well it’s not fully drawn-out and for good reason. LeBeof gives a decent performance but doesn’t look like John McEnroe, strut like John McEnroe, or completely act like John McEnroe (too many obvious F-bombs and no East Coast accent). The producers probably knew this and didn’t want to fluctuate and/or elaborate on Johnny Mac’s hard ass back-story.

    All in all, it’s hard to make a compelling film when you know the outcome. Also, Borg vs McEnroe’s pace is somewhat glacial with some muted scenes feeling like pseudo PowerPoint presentations. Still, “vs” is edited well (check out Borg’s superstitions/rituals with his Donnay sticks and his overall body routine) and has an effectively saturated look. As independent fodder made carefully with a little skill and craft, Borg vs McEnroe secures “match point” and gets my harnessed recommendation. Rating: 3 stars.

    Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

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