'Borg vs McEnroe' falls short of being a winner

Like last year's "Battle of the Sexes," "Borg vs McEnroe" uses a famous tennis match of yesteryear to try getting at ...

Posted: Apr. 12, 2018 4:11 PM
Updated: Apr. 12, 2018 4:11 PM

Like last year's "Battle of the Sexes," "Borg vs McEnroe" uses a famous tennis match of yesteryear to try getting at a deeper meaning. In this case, it's not gender equality, but rather the roots -- and price -- of competitive greatness, yielding a move that's intellectually stimulating but whose execution is closer to a workmanlike grind than a clear-cut winner.

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In an enterprising and marketable twist, this European production tapped Shia LaBeouf -- an actor with a reputation for eccentricity -- to play John McEnroe, the tantrum-throwing tennis great. But the real focus is on his rival, Bjorn Borg, played by Sverrir Gudnason, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Swedish star.

That point of entry could be intriguing, to the extent that Borg was portrayed in the media as a tennis-playing automaton, someone virtually devoid of emotion. The premise here is that Borg labored to bury those feelings (there are flashbacks to his past as an enfant terrible), with the help and tutelage of his coach, Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard).

While McEnroe, from a distance, appears to be his polar opposite -- as one announcer puts it, "Ice Borg vs. Super Brat" -- there's actually an underlying kinship between the two, as the movie builds toward this clash of titans.

The set-up has potential. The underlying message, though, implies that the drive to be a champion tends to make one a bit of a jerk, given Borg's passive-aggressive behavior toward his fianc-e (Tuva Novotny) and Bergelin. At a moment where "winning" and "winners" have become part of the political lexicon, in terms of addressing the toxic side effects of that win-at-all-costs mentality, it's an opportunity missed.

Ultimately, the main hurdle (or net) not quite cleared by this film from Danish director Janus Metz is that it's difficult to translate Borg's inner turmoil and discomfort with his celebrity into a compelling movie. It's also a somewhat arduous trek toward the final match, an epic showdown in the 1980 Wimbledon final, where the upstart McEnroe was trying to deprive Borg of an unprecedented fifth consecutive title.

The match itself is well shot, capitalizing on tennis' one-on-one framework in a manner reminiscent of boxing (a movie genre with much deeper roots), as the two heavyweights trade blows on Centre Court.

Like Gudnason, LaBeouf is older than the character he's playing but plenty convincing as McEnroe; still, it's a thinner portrait, presenting him as a young guy with tons of anger and an abrasive edge, but without enough depth to make him much more than a petulant boor. (Tellingly, the movie was simply titled "Borg" for its release in Scandinavian countries, which frankly seems more accurate.)

"Borg vs McEnroe" underscores the inherent drama in sports movies, while tapping into a nostalgia factor for a moment when tennis produced storied rivalries and never felt bigger.

"It's life and death to you," Bergelin tells Borg, characterizing his uncompromising commitment to winning.

Fortunately for the filmmakers, the call on "Borg vs McEnroe" allows for a more nuanced verdict than simply "in" or "out."

"Borg vs McEnroe" premieres April 13 in New York and Los Angeles. It's rated R.

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