You can’t be serious: Shia LaBeouf playing tennis great John McEnroe? Yes, in the middling bio-pic “Borg vs. McEnroe,” he does just that. And he’s not the least bit believable as the enfant terrible of the gentleman sport. That doesn’t mean he’s not very good. To the contrary, he’s actually pretty amazing — in a meta sort of way. But he’s no John McEnroe — not in looks or stature. Aw, but in personality, he’s every bit the measure of the a-hole the London press once dubbed “SuperBrat.”
That was back in 1980, when the young, brash McEnroe turned the Wimbledon fortnight into a media circus with his foul language and boorish behavior; most of it on Center Court. In other words, he was Shia LaBeouf long before Shia LaBeouf was pulling the same attention-grabbing stunts. So, who better to play Johnny Mac? Well, be careful what you wish for director Janus Metz, because no matter how many afro wigs and bright-red headbands you adorn him in, all we see is LaBeouf playing himself in tennis gear. And it’s not what you’d call endearing.
On the other hand, little-known Icelander Sverrir Gudnason is the eerie epitome of Bjorn Borg, the five-time Wimbledon champ who played probably his finest match against McEnroe in the tournament’s classic 1980 final. Gudnason not only looks like Borg with his messy razor stubble and long, golden locks; he is Borg in every facet, from his posture and carriage to the Swede’s icy demeanor. Him, you totally believe, setting up a dramatic showdown that feels more like Borg vs. LaBeouf than Borg vs. McEnroe.
That doesn’t stop you from rooting for LaBeouf to follow the real McEnroe’s transformation from loudmouth to lovable, self-deprecating pitch man. But it’s a futile exercise. You end up hating him at the end as much as you did at the beginning, while Gudnason has us walking away with a far greater amount of adoration and respect for Borg.
Like me, the real McEnroe isn’t a fan of the movie in general (too phony, he says) and LaBeouf’s portrayal in particular. To quote Johnny Mac’s quip in the London Telegraph, the movie invented scenes to make him “look like a jerk,” which is ridiculous when he says there were plenty of real instances that could have served just as well — if not better. In that same article, Borg wasn’t overly impressed, either, saying the movie was “good,” but pure “fiction” — this from the guy who’s 14-year-old son, Leo (a dead-ringer), plays Borg in flashbacks to the tennis great’s teenage years.
I can’t say for sure, but I suspect their reaction to the movie has less to do with casting and more with Swede Ronnie Sandahl’s lazy script, which plays off the beyond tired fire-vs.-ice angle pushed by the London tabs way back in the day. He and Metz think themselves clever in building off that theme by suggesting the two rivals were more alike than you’d think, albeit switched in their childhoods, with Borg being the fiery jerk and McEnroe the well-behaved nerd. That’s marginally interesting, but Metz never follows up with what it was that motivated them to make the switch. Nor does he hint at what these dramatic transformations have to do with the movie’s main objective of re-enacting their respective climbs through the brackets to meet in the 1980 final. The showdown was long considered history’s greatest tennis match until the Nadal-Federer marathon at the 2008 Wimbledon fortnight. But you’d never know it by how staid it’s depicted.
It pales decidedly in comparison to last year’s “Battle of the Sexes” when it comes to re-enacting slams, lobs and aces. Where “Borg vs. McEnroe” scores its best volleys isn’t between the two athletes, but Borg and his coaching guru, Zen meister Lennart Bergelin, played in the film’s best performance by a strong, but stoic Stellan Skarsgård. Their quasi father-son relationship unspools like a May-December bromance, with Borg’s lovely Romanian bride-to-be, Mariana Simionescu (Tuva Novotny), looking on, longing to be as close to Bjorn as he. I kinda had that same feeling about the movie, which too often left me on the outside looking in instead of down on the court amid the sweat and the grunts. There, you might have felt something akin to one of Borg’s powerful two-handed backhands, instead of a weak return struggling to skim the net.
“Borg vs. McEnroe”
Cast includes Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Tuva Novotny and Stellan Skarsgård. (In English and Swedish with English subtitles.) (R for language throughout and some nudity.)