PLOT Two tennis greats meet for a grueling battle at the 1980 Wimbledon Championships.
CAST Shia LaBeouf, Sverirr Gudnason, Tuva Novotny
RATED R (language)
BOTTOM LINE LaBeouf aces it as bad-boy tennis pro John McEnroe in this slow-burn sports drama.
Two tennis champions, the unflappable Swede Björn Borg and the hotheaded American John McEnroe, face off in “Borg vs. McEnroe.” It’s a compelling story with much to recommend it: fascinating details about both men, plus an agonizingly close final game that will bring your heart into your throat.
Let’s face it, though: The real selling point here is watching Shia LaBeouf, one of the most widely reviled actors in showbiz, play his tennis-industry doppelgänger, McEnroe.
It’s almost a case of stunt casting. LaBeouf fell from grace after a series of bizarre, attention-getting stunts that began with a case of plagiarism and culminated in wearing a paper bag on his head in public. McEnroe’s behavior was different — he screamed at umpires, cursed at crowds and verbally abused reporters — but the upshot is that both men seemed to thrive on others’ disapproval. The curly-haired actor and athlete also look uncannily similar; with a headband they’re almost impossible to distinguish. There’s a deeper resemblance, though, and it’s built into this compelling movie: Just as McEnroe ultimately won crowds over with his sheer talent, so LaBeouf seems to be doing the same. Following his acclaimed turn as an enigmatic scam artist in “American Honey,” LaBeouf delivers a highly intelligent and impressively understated performance as McEnroe.
Perhaps because this is a Scandinavian production (director Janus Metz is Danish and screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl is Swedish), it slightly favors Borg (Sverirr Gudnason), who was famous for his methodical, emotionless playing style. According to the film, though, as a boy Björn was almost a Happy Gilmore type who brought his hockey-player’s aggression to the tennis court; only a dedicated trainer, Lennart “Labbe” Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard), was able to channel Borg’s rage into his racket. As Borg struggles to keep his cool while attempting to win his fifth consecutive Wimbledon championship in 1980, we realize he’s more like his rival than most people know. Tuva Novotny plays his future wife, Mariana Simionescu, who tolerates his hotel-room blowups and crises of faith.
Much like “I, Tonya,” which successfully turned a sports villain, Tonya Harding, into a punk-rock anti-hero, “Borg vs. McEnroe” tries to paint McEnroe as a rebellious underdog, a street kid in a Ramones shirt. That’s a stretch, but LaBeouf wisely focuses on McEnroe’s prickly personality and the all-consuming ambition that make him a lonely and empathetic figure. In the end, you might walk away liking both the character and the actor more than you expected.