Rating: 3.5 stars
Sometimes a movie comes along that, devoid of a noisy publicity push or festival buzz, quietly ambushes the unsuspecting viewer with an absorbing, skillfully executed, meaningful and thoroughly entertaining experience.
Ladies and gentlemen, “Borg vs. McEnroe” is just that kind of film. Directed by Janus Metz from a script by Ronnie Sandahl, the movie dramatizes the historic 1980 Wimbledon final during which four-time men’s singles champion Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) sought to secure his fifth title against the brash American up-and-comer John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf). The match, a grueling test of stamina, strength and psychic will, turned out to be spectacular and improbably moving. Anyone who watched it — in person or during a memorable TV broadcast — will attest to the fact that, up until that point, and for many years to come, it was the greatest tennis game ever played.
“Borg vs. McEnroe” conveys every bead of sweat and every ounce of rising tension in that titanic showdown. Thanks to adroit performances from perfectly cast lead actors and seamless visual effects, movie audiences will believe that they’re watching the real thing, right down to the muffled scrape of tennis shoes on the grass of Wimbledon’s famed Centre Court. But most intriguingly, “Borg vs. McEnroe” is shaped not as a ticktock of a legendary sports event, but as a psychological portrait of competition, friendship and a complicated, temperamental prodigy, whose outbursts and lack of self-control threaten to derail what promises to be a fruitful athletic career.
The hothead in question, it turns out, is Borg, who when we meet him is already the superhumanly calm, self-possessed world champion and blond sex symbol most fans remember (for anyone who’s too young, two words: Google Image). Played in an uncannily spot-on physical and vocal performance by Gudnason, Borg is a man apart, training alone in Monte Carlo, carefully tuning his rackets and precision-monitoring his body and mental state to attain perfect equilibrium, even as he’s besieged by adoring fans, eager business partners and a hungry press. In flashbacks, we see that as an adolescent he was anything but the “Ice Borg” he came to be known as. It’s his coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard) who insists that it’s only by harnessing his youthful anger and passion that he’ll become a true champion.
In many of those sequences, Borg is played by his own real-life teenage son, Leo, giving “Borg vs. McEnroe” an extra layer of verisimilitude. But every other actor in this accomplished ensemble gives a performance assured enough to be mistaken for that of a blood relation. LaBeouf, a controversial figure in his off-screen life, harnesses whatever baggage his audience might bring to the theater to bring credence, not just to McEnroe’s notoriously boorish court behavior — “You cannot be serious,” he’d famously shout — but to what the filmmakers suggest was the deeply wounded child within. Robert Emms is similarly convincing as Vitas Gerulaitis, who provides not only lively trips to 1980s-era nightclubs, but also a tutorial in Borg’s remarkable self-discipline, which included an idiosyncratic collection of pregame rituals, habits and superstitions.
Beautifully structured, energetically paced and superbly acted, “Borg vs. McEnroe” culminates, for obvious reasons, at that high-stakes Wimbledon match, which unfolds with such well-calibrated suspense that even seasoned spectators may forget who won. But the true artistry of the film can be found in its first several minutes, when the camera simply observes Borg has he quietly goes about his day, at one point temporarily hiding from fame and performance anxiety in an empty bar. Thanks to excellent writing and direction and Gudnason’s soulful, fully inhabited portrayal, by the time Borg leaves that dimly lit refuge, viewers will feel they know him intimately, they’ll follow him wherever he goes and, most important, they’ll care deeply about that journey. “Borg vs. McEnroe” exemplifies its own kind of virtuosity: It’s eminently worthy of the athletic genius it both captures and celebrates.
R. At the Avalon. Contains crude language throughout and some nudity. 107 minutes.