Not much to ‘love’ about tired sports clichés in ‘Borg McEnroe’

McEnroe Neon/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

What’s better than a cliched sports movie about emotional fortitude and a timeless rivalry? A cliched sports movie set in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Fans of competition, corduroy jackets and shaggy hairstyles rejoice — “Borg McEnroe” delivers on this front. Unfortunately, the worn-out trope of the misunderstood athlete undercuts the film, making what could be an exciting display of rivalry and tension into a tired reiteration of sports films that attempt to be full-fledged dramas.

Björn Borg (the perfectly cast Sverrir Gudnason) and John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) first went head to head in the 1980 Wimbledon Championships. Borg was the stonily composed bastion of tennis proficiency; McEnroe, the virulently explosive rising star. Going into the competition, they were ranked No. 1 and No. 2  in the world for men’s singles, respectively.

At the time, the tennis world — dominated by affluent players with expensive club memberships — was harshly critical of volatility on the courts. Borg, motivated from an early age by his revulsion to loss, was ostracized by the Swedish tennis community because of his impassioned outbursts — that is, until Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård) brought him into the fold of Sweden’s Davis Cup team, where he coached Borg to become glacially detached on the court.

McEnroe didn’t receive this kind of training. He rose to infamy because of his propensity to blow up at court umpires and scream profanity at the booing fans, earning him the nickname “Superbrat” within England.

In an attempt to reconcile and humanize the two deity-like figures, “Borg McEnroe” slowly reveals Borg’s hidden emotionality and McEnroe’s equally suppressed, parental-induced anxiety.

In a particularly poignant scene, McEnroe’s father (Ian Blackman) challenges a dinner guest to ask a young McEnroe (Jackson Gann) increasingly challenging multiplication problems. The guest ultimately reaches McEnroe’s mathematical limit, and McEnroe’s face fills with suppressed dread and a palpable fear of disappointment — the combination of which is hauntingly effective. Faced with the difficult task of rounding out a two-dimensional protagonist, Gann represents the volatility of McEnroe’s youth in earnest.

The aptitude of the cast and director Janus Metz’s stunning close-ups of woeful eyes and shuffling feet, however, are rarely enough to overcome the dialogue’s staleness. Overused sports phrases such as “one point at a time,” among others, are particularly abundant in fiery conversations between Bergelin and Borg. The banality of the dialogue works synergistically with the predictability of each character’s development from start to finish, resulting in a bland final product.

While the film chose to be character-driven, both protagonists are never quite likeable. Borg’s inclination to alienate those he loves is equally as obnoxious as McEnroe’s propensity for needless, spittle-producing yelling.

The objectionable natures of the two characters are not remedied by their athletic abilities, as was the case in the real world. Gudnason and LaBeouf are both incapable of mimicking world-champion-level tennis. Metz strives to surmount this obstacle by utilizing slow-motion pans and deeply saturated aerial shots of the courts. While these scenes are undeniably beautiful aesthetically, they fail to reduce the sense of inaccuracy prevalent throughout.

Despite its shortcomings, the penultimate sequence of the film — a drawn-out retelling of that Wimbledon faceoff — is well-formulated enough to elicit a spike in heart rate and the occasional faux-velvet armrest clutch. Gudnason and LaBeouf’s attempts to recreate Borg and McEnroe’s styles of play are even more convincing in this moment than at any other time — their characters are fully sweating, bleeding and sliding across the court.

Watching these two men face off in a prolonged final match forces the viewer to pick a favorite. Yet through understanding the emotional and physical duress the tennis demigods endured, it’s difficult to want either to lose. For a few minutes, it becomes easier to suspend disbelief and to get lost in the players’ struggle to become No. 1.

While “Borg McEnroe” was poorly written, the talent of its cast and level of its cinematography allow the film to achieve a caliber just above the masses of easily forgettable sports flicks.

Contact Keats Iwanaga at [email protected].