Tuesday, July 3, 2018

A Tennis Rivalry Makes For Erratically Interesting Drama In Borg vs. McEnroe

Borg vs. McEnroe is the movie version of a cake that's been taken out of the oven too early. All the ingredients are in place for something delectable, but it's managed to come out undercooked. A little more time spent in the oven, or in this case more time spent polishing up the script, and something truly special could have been created here. The version of the movie we do get is about the real-life rivalry between tennis players Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) that came to head in a pivotal 1980 Wimbledon Championship tennis match. We get to see them prepare for this major tennis court duel as well as flashbacks showing how they got to their current stages in life.

Pitting the two vastly different real-life media personalities these two cultivated, with Borg being a quiet emotionless player dedicated to his craft while McEnroe is a loud-mouthed individual prone to profane outbursts on the court, against each other seem like fertile ground to create interesting drama around while also providing a chance for Ronnie Sandahl's script to investigate the everyday human beings behind such larger-than-life personalities. Borg vs. McEnroe tries to do both of those things in his writing to varying degrees of success, with an early scene of Borg going to a bar and pretending to be an electrician in an effort to just be a normal person for a small amount of time being one of the best examples of the film humanizing its two leads.

However, Borg vs. McEnroe mostly relies on extensive flashbacks to explore Borg as a character and that becomes a problem when it feels like Borg is only really a fleshed-out character when we're in sequences set prior to 1980. Yes, he's supposed to be a detached individual in the sequences set around that fateful Wimbledon match in 1980, but such a figure feels so thoroughly disconnected from the more thoughtfully realized version of him from his childhood. Surely there were ways to subtly incorporate flashes of personality in the more restrained adult version of Borg that could have made him a more interesting character to be around.

Despite a game performance from Sverrir Gudnason that deserved a better-written role, this lack of depth in the 1980 version of Bjorn Borg means John McEnroe ends up being the more compelling of the two leads in the overall film, with Sandahl deeply exploring this man whose abrasive outbursts turn out to be cries for help. It was a brilliant idea to cast Shia LaBeouf in this role, LaBeouf tends to excel in portraying psychologically tortured individuals in a realistic manner (even the dismal Man Down has some great moments of acting from LaBeouf inhabiting that kind of role) and he works wonders in making McEnroe feel like a human being who is constantly chasing some sort of validation even when he's pushing people away.

Director Janus Metz Pedersen is a Danish filmmaker making his narrative feature film directorial debut here and he does fine work behind the camera, particularly in getting some noteworthy performances out of his two leads. He and cinematographer Niels Thastum also execute some solid camerawork in the climax that manages to make the final tennis match between the two titular leads reasonably exciting to watch. There are other pieces of clever camerawork scattered throughout the film and such visual flourishes, along with Shia LaBeouf's performance, are the best parts of Borg vs. McEnroe, a movie that really should have been left in that oven a little while longer so that it could be as tasty as it could be.

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