There may not be a sport that has been failed by Hollywood more than the court game of tennis. Baseball has its Field of Dreams and Bull Durham. Hockey has Miracle and Slap Shot. Even rugby has a watchable entry with Invictus. Tennis? Doubt the average cinema attender could name a single film focusing on the sport that has four major tournaments throughout the year and has etched upon even the most casual of sports fans the names of the best athletes tennis has to offer. Even I am stumped to name a film beyond 2004’s Wimbledon and 2005’s Match Point. Both films of which I met with a shrug of the shoulders both before and after my screenings. Contrast that with the fact that I own a copy of Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.
Director Janus Metz is looking to change our perceptions on tennis films. The director of I-have-to-Google-to-find-out-what-they’re-about-films such as Ticket to Paradise (2008), and Armadillo (2010) works from a screenplay from Ronnie Dandahl on the new film Borg/McEnroe that attempts to recreate the 1980 Wimbledon Championship match between tennis legends Bjorn Borg and American newcomer John McEnroe.
Those over the age of 35 that may have even the tiniest bit of trivial knowledge about tennis would know of John McEnroe. He was a belligerent, arrogant and incredibly talented American whose emotions would be on display both on and off the court. McEnroe had a disdain for tennis officials who made marginal calls against him and was just as hard on himself as he was his inner and outer circles. So who better to play the agitated hothead than actor Shia LaBeouf who himself has had a wild irrational ride in the TMZ spotlight. The actor has a history of belligerence, drunkenness and arrest records followed by public apologies. On paper, LaBeouf is as perfectly cast as madcap McEnroe as Benicio Del Toro was when cast as a werewolf.
On the other side of the net is Bjorn Borg played by Sverrir Gudnason (The Circle). Borg was the polar opposite in personality than was McEnroe. A four time Wimbledon winner, Borg was a loner unable to embrace the media and worried that his legacy would be hinge on his next loss. Borg and McEnroe’s meeting on the hardcourt was a match made in sports heaven.
Borg/McEnroe (which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last night), spends most of the opening reel on Borg, developing his character and revealing the insecurities of a man who was the best at his profession. It is a layered performance that stops just short of giving audiences a full understanding into the athlete’s soul.
But it’s when the film begins to flush out John McEnroe that gets audiences to straighten their theatre seat posture. LaBeouf embodies McEnroe as the firecracker that could go off at any second in a tirade against any and all within vocal range. McEnroe has always been a polarizing and a like-him-or-hate-him personality and LaBeouf does a formidable job in his accurate and flawed performance. We get moments of McEnroe at his most confident and in private at his most vulnerable.
The film uses both flashbacks and present tense to present the story of the historic 1980’s match whose winner will not be revealed here (sorry). LaBeouf and Gudnason look competent in their tennis skill portrayals and Janus Metz does a fairly reliable job in piling the emotional weights on both players’ shoulders leading to the climatic tête-à-tête finale. But is this the movie that will be the epitome of tennis films going forward? Unfortunately, no. Although the characters are as interesting as their persona allows, the overall output is somewhat of a flatline. I enjoyed the background of each character and their individual neurosis but I wasn’t rooting for any one character nor did I have a pulse rate of over 75 beats/minute as the match evolves. Maybe it’s the stop/start characteristics of the sport itself. There is no flow to the game of tennis and only frantic editing can allow for consistent tension. Borg/McEnroe does its best, but it just doesn’t do enough to elevate the film into a conversation of one of the best sports films of all time.