It’s not hard to see why the 1980 Wimbledon clash between Björn Borg and John McEnroe would’ve made an attractive proposition for a sports flick. Universally considered one of the most electrifying showdowns ever to grace a tennis court, the rivalry suggests a clear-cut, ready-made dramatic powder keg. Borg (Sverrir Gudnason), a steely Swedish sensation coming off four consecutive Wimbledon wins, quietly seethes under the pressure of expectation, and the curse of victory. The perfect underdog, American McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) embodies all the raw, unpredictable talent of an up-and-comer. In its pitting of contrasting temperaments against each other, Borg vs. McEnroe is not unlike the tennis equivalent of Rush, Ron Howard’s similarly-‘70s-era racing drama that charted the battle between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda.
While obviously no substitute for being there in the moment, director Janus Metz’s hopped-up, montage-heavy staging of the final match works overtime to send the viewer into a tizzy, especially for those who aren’t aware of the outcome. The off-the-court stuff can be a bit prosaic, prone to standard biopic issues: momentum-sapping episodic plotting, flashback-driven psychological unpacking. And the film never quite justifies the grandiose Andre Agassi quote that opens it: “every match is a life in miniature”. But Borg vs. McEnroe remains watchable on the strength of its leads, who’re effective beyond the uncanny physical likeness to their real-life counterparts. Gudnason discovers flakes of vulnerability underneath the unwavering stillness of the “Ice Borg”. McEnroe’s “unsportsmanlike behaviour” is a no-brainer fit for LaBeouf, who attacks the tennis enfant terrible’s profanity-filled, racket-throwing antics with gusto. Rooting for an asshole has rarely been this easy.