Much like the game of tennis itself, the film smash cuts from one character to another in electrifying ways. To go with the sports film cliché, Borg McEnroe does go through the motions of sacrificing things to become the world champion. But director Janus Metz Pedersen applies the cliché into a psychological warfare of sorts to enhance the rivalry between the legends, extrapolating the personalities of the two men as well as the look and feel of the era.
We’re introduced to Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gunason) who is already the overlord of the game. He already has four Wimbledon titles and is on the hunt for breaking the world record with his eyes on the next one. With all the talent and fame, however, there is always the insecurity and fear of losing it all with just one failure. John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) is a total contrast – the brash new kid on the block hungry to take over the world by any means necessary. He’s ranked number two, right behind Borg, but is always jealous because he never manages to get the respect and fame that his rival does.
It’s always obvious that the film would end at the match between the two, so the journey to that point is ultimately the factor that matters, and Pedersen manages to squeeze in just the right amount of fact, fiction and cinematic drama to make the wait worthwhile. As the film progresses we learn through flashbacks how the two men built their careers, and though we find stark contrasts we also discover many surprising parallels. The media’s obsession with painting both of them as sworn enemies becomes an interesting topic to ponder over since the third party meddling ultimately shapes who the two men become, and how they treat each other. The best moments in the film are those which showcase McEnroe’s frustration at the media and the public for knowing and cheering him for his swearing and shouting, rather than for his tennis skills.
At points it does feel like Shia LaBeouf’s role was quite the meta casting. Much like the character he is playing, LaBeouf is known for his antics – he plagiarized a material for a short film, then apologized for it by wearing a bag on his head at a film festival and even set up an art exhibit of sorts with himself wearing said bag. Like McEnroe, he is an attention seeker, and it could even be possible this film is part of his charade. Gudnason renders a solid performance with an understated approach to his character, though in terms of sheer on screen magnetism he’s pretty much chewed up and spat out by LaBeouf every time they’re seen together.
The way the finale is shot is rousing and exhilarating and captures the spirit of tennis and the sentiment surrounding the sport. It perfectly portrays the mad emotions bottled inside a veneer of gentlemanly stoicity. It doesn’t even matter if you know who won the match, it’s just so exciting you’ll be clapping hard by the time the credits roll.