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Borg McEnroe review: Game, set, but not quite championship point

Sahil Bhalla | Updated on: 8 December 2017, 15:25 IST
(Film still)

The two were more alike than different. They both gave it all – blood, sweat and tears – on the tennis court. The two were Björn Borg and John McEnroe, legends of the game of tennis during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The former challenged his anger at a young age to become the ‘gentleman’ of the sport and bring glory to the Swedes. The latter was a brash New Yorker who would, at a moment’s notice, self-destruct on the biggest of stages that the tennis fraternity graces. The former was ice-cool; latter, hot-headed.

It is fitting then that Shia LaBeouf got to channel his anger and unsportsmanlike behaviour to essay the role of McEnroe. It’s a sort of self-portrait for LaBeouf with his own real-life tabloid-baiting antics. Borg McEnroe was written by a Swede and made with Scandinavian money, so it isn’t surprising to see McEnroe being relegated to just a play on the opposite side of the court.

The focus on Borg, played by Sverrir Gudnason is aided by the increasing screen time of his trainer Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård) and girlfriend Mariana Simionescu (Tuva Novotny). While McEnroe’s entourage is unseen, except for his father. It could have been deliberate on the part of the screenplay but its lost on the viewer trying to figure out just how these two competitors got to where they were.

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“And now the entire world is waiting for these two giants to enter, like two gladiators,” says a French commentator during the film. It’s not just the entire world in 1980, it’s also the movie-going audience in 2017.

At the centre of this study of two greats of the game is a chance at history. Borg is aiming for his fifth straight Wimbledon Championship, and the only thing that stands in his way of glory is the up and coming American prodigy McEnroe.

Borg McEnroe opens with the two greats going at each other on Centre Court during the 1980 Wimbledon final. It is the road to the final that tells the rest of the story. While the movie leads up to the championship points, you’d be better off not having watched the beginning! Don’t let it be a lingering thought throughout the movie.

The suspense is lost on the viewer – whether he/she is a fan of the sport or not – and that is the biggest blunder of Ronnie Sandahl’s screenplay. The other mistake made comes at a pivotal moment in one of Borg’s flashbacks. He’s been recruited by Sweden’s Davis Cup coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård). After many scenes of Borg losing his cool on the court, Bergelin steps into his room and tells him he’ll be playing the Davis Cup match on one promise.

The promise was to never show any emotion ever again. In one fell swoop, Borg goes from being John McEnroe to Bjorn Borg. It’s a little far-fetched for the viewer who hasn’t followed the story in real time. Borg essentially turned into robotic mode.

We get to see a lot of Borg and scenes of him growing up, but even then, the viewer is lost trying to figure out just what this character Borg is made off. For Borg shows little emotion for much of the film – sticking to the persona of the “iceman cometh”.

For McEnroe, it’s easy to decipher that his increasing on-court temper (prior to the 1980 Wimbledon final) has earned him a lonely existence and close to zero fans. The fact that the viewer learns this through his present and not his past is something that makes this sports movie lack depth in the emotional department.

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As a sports fan or not, you’re left without a connection to either of the two players. It’s a rivalry unrivalled to date (maybe Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, but it was a totally different era in the 80s). It’s supposed to stoke an allegiance, whichever way, in the viewer. One just ends up rooting for the match (they know it’ll be epic, because of all the buildup) rather than the players themselves, despite all the main three actors being fabulous.

Sadly, the only insight we gain from this esteemed rivalry was that Borg was a little less the iceman and McEnroe’s tantrums were not as rage-worthy as they were made out to be.

This is something that Ron Howard’s Rush – a film about the rivalry between Formula 1 drivers Nikki Lauda and James Hunt during the 1976 season – did to perfection. That film captured the emotion, the story and the sport in all its glory.

It’s the grand finale that truly makes this movie rise above mediocrity. It’s the small moments in the acting, the swift pacing of the script, and the array of close-ups and long takes from the director that make this movie worth your while. But the jump cuts go amiss.

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While none of it may seem as good as being there in the present, the wait for the 'final’ is worth it, especially with it being more balanced than the plot.

There is a touching scene after the build-up after the match is over. It is a scene, simple as ever, with the two exchanging a few words at the airport. It’s this slowing down of the pacing that works beautifully. If only the direction and script chose a few more hard-hitting scenes, it would have been a better film.

At 107 minutes long, you may be waiting a little longer than anticipated to find out the final result, but its best you resist the urge to Google the ending and just let it unfold on the screen in front of you.

Do head to the cinemas and give Borg McEnroe a chance.

Rating: 3.5/5

First published: 8 December 2017, 15:16 IST
Sahil Bhalla @IMSahilBhalla

Sahil is a correspondent at Catch. A gadget freak, he loves offering free tech support to family and friends. He studied at Sarah Lawrence College, New York and worked previously for Scroll. He selectively boycotts fast food chains, worries about Arsenal, and travels whenever and wherever he can. Sahil is an unapologetic foodie and a film aficionado.