VOD film review: Borg vs McEnroe
Ivan Radford | On 22, Jan 2018
Director: Janus Metz
Cast: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf
Watch Borg vs McEnroe online in the UK: BBC iPlayer / MUBI UK / Curzon Home Cinema / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
John McEnroe. Björn Borg. Two titans of tennis that had crowds riveted during their 14 matches against each other. Show any tennis game of theirs in a cinema and it would be several hours of entertainment without anything further required. It’s testament to Borg McEnroe, then, that it manages to be thrilling in its own right: the very idea of having a tennis movie about them both and spending most of it off court should be cinematic suicide.
The script, by Ronnie Sandahl, ticks all the sports movie biopic boxes, as we take the whole first hour to delve into the childhoods of these iconic legends – although, being a Swedish production, we naturally spend more time behind the rackets of Borg. A dozen of them, to be exact, all carefully stringed and tuned up before each game in his hotel room. Sverrir Gudnason is magnificent as the ice-cool tennis player, a competitor known for his stone-faced composure as much as his ground strokes. He not only looks the part: he sells it, bottling up all of his tension and nerves, as he races to the top of the game, then attempts to keep calm, as the boisterous young McEnroe storms up behind him to steal his title.
Shia LaBeouf is equally well cast as the hot-headed hotshot, clearly enjoying the chance let off steam at umpires, linespeople and anyone else around him. In recent years, LaBeouf has given us turns in Fury and American Honey, both times impressing with his quietly intense rage – seeing it erupt is just as satisfying.
That casting is the secret to Janus Metz’s film, which taps into the sheer charisma of its two leading men to do justice to their on-screen legacies. Between them is Stellan Skarsgard, whose role as Borg’s trainer is the only weak point – with barely a single conversation, he transforms the young Swede into the slick machine the public knew so well. Skarsgard’s performance, though, is convincing enough that even that concern fades into the background: the chemistry between the trio when they’re in front of the camera is absorbing to watch. The only disappointment is that we don’t get more of them in the same room together.
Metz, meanwhile, doesn’t hold back when it comes to the tennis, out-Wimbledonning Wimbledon (the only real rival to the modern tennis movie crown) with a dazzling montage of overhead shots, slow-motion close-ups and rapidly whirring scoreboards. The climax – their five-set epic in 1980 – is genuinely nail-biting: if it’s too easy for Gudnason to switch into calm autopilot, the tension stems from the moments where LaBeouf’s McEnroe manages to stay surprisingly cool too. The suspense is matched only by the relaxed warmth and respect exuded by the pair when they bump into each at the airport afterwards. You’ll leave the cinema wanting to watch them actually play tennis – whether you’re a fan of the sport of not.
Borg vs McEnroe is available on BBC iPlayer until 1st August 2021. It is also now available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription.