TIFF FILM REVIEW: BORG/McENROE Is a Conventional Sports Drama About Troubled Heroes
In what appears to be a mini-year of the tennis movie, the sports rivalry film Borg vs. McEnroe opened the Toronto International Film Festival last tonight, after another historic such movie premiered at the Telluride Film Festival just last weekend. This time around, the showdown is not between a guy and a gal but between two high-strung, high-achieving, somewhat unstable athletes that give it their all until only one remains. And while Borg/McEnroe is much less consequential than Battle of the Sexes, it is nevertheless an amusing film, one that will be particularly pleasing to fans of the sport.
The Danish/Swedish production is half in Bjorn Borg’s (Sverrir Gudnason) native tongue, as he runs roughshod across the wishes of his girlfriend (a Noomi Rapace lookalike actress called Tuva Novotny) and his coach (played by Stellan Skarsgard). On the other side of the net is a devoted performance by Shia LaBeouf, who chews the furniture just short of finding his delivery distracting, while playing the American tennis player John McEnroe. Who else to portray a tantrum-throwing star I suppose? The setting is mostly the 1980 Wimbledon tournament at which, as the title suggests, the two legendary greats faced off.
As with most sports or showdown films, the devil is in the details of the characters’ motivations. It turns out that both had challenging upbringings thanks to their staggering genius, making them lovable bad boys whose poor treatment of their surroundings is justified by their fame and success. McEnroe was too good at math for his own good and was pushed by overbearing parents that demanded perfection. Borg was victimized mostly by his own obsessive compulsiveness and competitive spirit, as well as by his coach Lennart. It’s standard fare—nothing too out there, but our intrinsic interest in what makes our heroes tick cannot be easily turned away.
The story thus mostly chugs along, skipping between the troubled past and the predictable present, where Borg and McEnroe are clearly on a collision course now that Borg has won four straight Wimbledon titles at only 25 and McEnroe has his targets set on him.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of Borg/McEnroe is that it persistently refuses to take sides in the faceoff, pulling you towards rooting for one side and then the other, even if a bit too noncommittally all the way through the final title cards. Both individuals are flawed—and both cross the lines that these anti-heroes you root for normally do. And just when it seems that the movie is going to devote more attention or emotional investment to one particular side of the net, it rackets you over to the other side with a powerful serve that makes you switch allegiances.
The film is even better if you do not know the outcome of the match, which I will not spoil here, as it effectively builds tension around the real-life, nail-biting results of each closely-fought point after closely-fought point. The story is worth telling not just because of the somewhat interesting backstory of the characters, or because of the growing rivalry turned into respected enmity (which is not really explored until the end), but because it was clearly one of the hardest and closest fought Tennis matches ever, at such high stakes. That third act alone is without question the tensest and best executed part of an otherwise conventional film.
Everyone wants fame, Borg/McEnroe confidently declares at some point towards the end of the exercise. This is true for the most part—it certainly is true of the movie business, and it is certainly true of the sports world which the former loves to dramatize. Borg/McEnroe fits squarely within the genre of staging physical confrontation for seductive effects, to inebriate an audience that loves both the fame of the characters they think they are watching and of the stars that are portraying them. It is a tried and true formula, as old as the medium itself, and Borg/McEnroe understands this well, doing absolutely nothing that could alter or modify the ingredients of the usual winning combination.