“Every match is a life in miniature” That poetic, yet somewhat ludicrous, quote by the great American tennis player Andre Agassi opens Borg McEnroe and, in a way, reflects everything that is both good and bad about this breezy, easy-watching tennis movie. Deployed without context, free of irony and relying on the audience’s innate ability to actively get onboard, and get excited about a single frozen moment of sporting history; the comment (and indeed the movie) may prompt nods of appreciation from tennis aficionados, but sceptical responses from those less interested.
Crescendoing with Borg and McEnroe’s first incendiary clash at the Wimbledon men’s final in 1980, Janus Metz Pedersen’s duo-biopic flits back and forth, charting the fledgling careers and rises to fame of two of the most recognisable and disparate characters in tennis: the methodical and focused Bjorn Borg and the fiery, unpredictable John McEnroe. Borg approaching his fifth Wimbledon final in a row, desperate to win and cement his place as the greatest tennis player of all time; McEnroe keen to win his first and shake off the image of the enfant terrible of the court.
In pure technical terms, Borg McEnroe is nicely crafted and believably constructed. Its numerous in-game scenes are more convincing than Richard Loncraine’s Wimbledon, giving a sense of authenticity to Sverrir Gudnason and Shia LaBeouf’s on court moments. Niels Thastum’s static, top-down photography has a solid, Battenbergy feel to it and makes for a nice contrast to the wooshing action of many sports movies.
Trouble is, Borg McEnroe relies too heavily on the audience’s pre-existing interest in the players and the story, and does too little to make casual viewers care about the dynamic between the characters or which one should ultimately win. Asif Kapadia’s poetic Senna was a masterclass in humanising an enigmatic sporting figure and highlighting the clashing styles of the passionate Ayrton Senna and the methodical Alain Prost. Pedersen’s effort seems content to focus on isolated flare-ups between players and coaches and individual moments of self-doubt. The result is entertaining, but never informative or involving enough to rouse any sense of occasion or make the events seem truly important. Both men come across as arseholes in their own ways, with LaBeouf’s McEnroe arguably winning the charm race by virtue of the fact he has the funniest lines.
The literal finale, to which the movie has been building, bubbles over, wrapped so completely in every sports movie cliché imaginable that it dampens any potential impact the showdown might have. An intrusive, explain-all commentary, is particularly annoying and one suspects that the climatic match would be so much more poetic and involving without any talking whatsoever, giving the tennis a chance to tell a story for the first time.
There is some fun to be had here: chiefly while LaBeouf swears and rants his way around the court, and the movie often frames the action in a picturesque way; but too often this feels a bit paint-by-numbers, and never involving enough to do justice to two great icons of the sport.
Dir: Janus Metz Pedersen
Scr: Ronnie Sandahl
Starring: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgard, Tuva Novotny
Prd: Jon Nohrstedt, Fredrik Wikstrom Nicastor
DOP: Niels Thastum
Music: Vladislav Delay, Jon Ekstrand, Carl-Johan Sevedag, Jonas Struck
Runtime: 100 minutes