Plot: Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) is at the top of the tennis world, with four Wimbledon titles under his belt and his sights set on a fifth. If he can claim that fifth win, he will be the all time leader in Wimbledon wins and bolster his legacy as one of the best to ever take the court. While he is favored to do just that, he has an unlikely rival in his path to that historic moment, the incendiary John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf). McEnroe is the polar oppostite of Borg, a fiery and emotional player in severe contrast to Borg’s cold, calculated style. As the tournament approaches, both men face inner demons, as Borg struggles to cope with the intense pressure and McEnroe longs to prove himself as an elite level competitor. Can these two world class tennis legends rise to the occasion and if so, who will emerge victorious in this epic showdown?
Entertainment Value: While this movie is centered on a tennis match, Borg vs. McEnroe is more of a character study than a sports picture. The narrative is anchored on Borg’s mental state and preparation for his showdown with McEnroe, so his rival is more of a secondary presence in this movie. In other words, this is much more about Borg than McEnroe, though he is given some development, just not nearly as much as Borg receives. This is likely for the best, as Shia LaBeouf turns in a ridiculous effort which would have derailed the entire movie is given the chance. There’s a good deal of tennis scenes in this one, as is to expected, but you don’t need to be tennis fan to connect, as this is a personal take on the spirit of competition. Those tennis scenes work well too, with a kinetic presence and sense of realism, so unlike some sports movies that get the sports elements wrong, Borg vs. McEnroe delivers in that regard. The pace is deliberate, but that is inevitable here since the focus is on characters and that pace is needed to allow for exposition and development. LaBeouf drags down the movie, but otherwise Borg vs. McEnroe is a rock solid, character driven picture.
This is a methodical look inside of a driven competitor, so the performance of Sverrir Gudnason had to be on point. He more than delivers, with a quiet, powerful turn that is able to convey the inner turmoil of Borg’s mind, which is an impressive feat. I appreciate that he was able to do so with minimal dialogue as well, getting across so much with facial expressions and body language. Gudnason carries the movie and is a more than capable lead, which is especially important given how terrible Shia LaBeouf decides to perform here. LaBeouf plays this is a cartoon character version of McEnroe, which might have even worked if he could make it feel genuine, which he fails at. The emotion and passion of McEnroe are nowhere to be found here, instead LaBeouf just hams it up and in such a serious movie, that was a poor choice. The cast also includes Jane Perry, Stellan Skarsgard, and Tuva Novotny.