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One of two huge tennis films this year at TIFF, Borg/McEnroe is the less appealing of the two, at least on the surface. It’s a self-serious drama about sport and the crushing dedication that it takes to be an honest-to-god master at it, and boy, is it hard to watch from time to time. The action photography isn’t that great, given that it’s hard for director Janus Metz Pedersen to do much with the paltry budget he’s been given, and the geography of his scenes on the court make very little physical sense. Plus, you’re competing with the tape: The actual drama of the 1980 Wimbledon final between Racket Gods Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, which is freely available to watch (and you should; I don’t even like tennis, and that match is something beautifully special to behold). This sports picture is at its best when its probing the minds of its protagonists, but its second half and occasional reliance on the dumbest of cliches (my kingdom, my kingdom for a sports movie that doesn’t introduce its brassy and odd American character to pulsing classic rock) sinks it like a stone.
Though you should still see it, of course. And I’ll tell you why in a bit.
The easiest tell that this movie was made for Swedes exclusively is given early on, as it becomes clear that we’re only going to be covering Borg’s stunning victory over McEnroe and capture of his fifth Wimbledon title, while an American director most definitely would have focused heavily on McEnroe’s win a year later. Yet that doesn’t prevent him from taking a totally hagiographic view of Borg’s life, and his own troubles, and we see Sverrir Gudnason throw plenty of tantrums at his coach, played by Stellan Skarsgård, and his own fiancee. He’s got that kind of OCD diva bullshit that we like to see from our sports stars (one character tells McEnroe the specifics and depth of the Swede’s superstitions — including having his parents only come to the tournament every second year, wearing the exact outfits they dressed in when they came the first time around) and somehow this is supposed to make us feel for the man. The working class hero bullshit that they try to stuff in there as well doesn’t totally work, and only serves to obscure the fact that this man has won Wimbledon four times already. The “heavy hangs the head” moments can only go so far in making him feel near us. It doesn’t help that Sverrir Gudnason can’t for his life make the man seem anything more than a cardboard cut-out with a dope-ass serve.
So, why see this movie?
Easy. Shia LaBeouf is playing the Superbrat himself, John McEnroe.
Every moment LaBeouf is on screen, the movie becomes something truly special. Sure, he doesn’t look jack-shit like Johnny Mac did back in the day, but I thought we stopped giving a shit about lookalike casting 20 or 30 years ago, or at least until Michael Fassbender pile-drove Ashton Kutcher in back in the Steve Jobs wars of a few years back. What he’s got is the temper and the rage that made McEnroe such a fascinating and hated presence on the court. He’s a livewire, shouting at the crowd and the judges about how fucking wrong they are about every single point or the noises of pigeons in the stands. Yet he’s not above endowing the character with legitimate pathos; shown in his loving and odd relationship with his father, his interactions with the few friends that he really has on the circuit, and his own lovely fan obsession with Borg early on in his own life as a tennis player. It’s some special Kill Your Idols stuff, and the Capital-B Beef is most definitely present and here to play. You wish he were in that American film I mentioned above, and you could spend the whole time around that character, warts and all.
Yet, as it stands, we have one fascinating and almost-iconic performance in a work that definitely doesn’t deserve it. Borg/McEnroe ultimately… well, I can’t think of a funny tennis pun here. Maybe it’s at fault? Is that how this works? Sure. Borg/McEnroe smacks against the net and lands with a thud.
Image courtesy of TIFF. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus, and recap all our TIFF 2017 coverage here.