Anyone who’s ever psyched themselves out prepping for a game, any game – life included – should take a look at Borg vs. McEnroe. There’s a lesson to be learned in watching two tennis titans go at it in a movie dished out for maximum entertainment and a sneaky sense of unease. It’s Wimbledon, 1980, and Swedish champion Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) is going for a record-breaking fifth Wimbledon title against bratty American newcomer John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf). Ancient history? Maybe. Tennis buffs all know how it turned out. Uninitiated millennials, not so much. They can Google it.
But it doesn’t matter in the end, really. Danish filmmaker Janus Metz, flying on a script by screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl, is all about the mind-fucking going on between two perfectionists who are more alike than they first appear. Borg preps by staying silent and by himself, obsessively neurotic about every detail from stringing rackets to making sure every item in his suitcase is packed in precisely the right order. McEnroe parties with friends, curses everyone on and off the court and acts like he doesn’t give a shit. It’s a lie: He cares deeply. Metz gives us flashbacks to both men as boys, fixated even then on being the best. The world doesn’t see their similarities, but these opponents do – and, more importantly, so does the movie.
Much is made of the final round, a 20-minute tennis montage of a metaphorical gunfight that made the record books. Metz deserves praise for blending closeups of the actors with stand-in athletes for the long shots. What counts more is the personal warfare going on inside the heads of these two champs, challenged by OCD and various mental roadblocks of their own construction. Gudnason finds the cool that masks the roaring energy inside the Swede, a roar kept in check by his coach Lennart Bergelin (a superb Stellan Skarsgård). The coach succeeds better than Borg’s fiancée Mariana Simionescu (Tuva Novotny), who is largely ignored. As for LaBeouf, with an off-screen rep as a hothead to rival McEnroe’s, this protean talent rips into the role like an actor possessed, playing Johnny Mac as a volcano ready to blow with only his failure-adverse Dad (Ian Blackman) ready to pull in the reins.
These performers keep you mesmerized, making the most of what they’re given even when the film sinks into a swamp of whose-dick-is-bigger competitions and sports clichés about product endorsements. Last year’s Battle of the Sexes relied on a gimmick – Billie Jean King taking on a clownish Bobby Riggs and turning the court into a gender battlefield. Borg and McEnroe were playing for real in a contest that could bring down a beloved champ at the hands of a rageaholic nobody likes. That’s drama, folks, and when Borg vs. McEnroe sticks with a grudge match that bloomed into an unlikely and lasting friendship, this scattershot movie finds its heat and its beating heart.