In the world of tennis, many people consider baseline player Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and net rusher John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) the perfect rivalry, the cool-headed Swede vs the American hothead. Danish film director Janus Metz was only 6-years old when the tennis titans played one of the greatest matches in the history of Wimbledon, still, the director best known for the documentary “Armadillo” serves up a well-crafted film that shows how these two rivals were alike in many ways.
“Borg vs McEnroe” succeeds on many levels including first and foremost the stellar casting of Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason who gave up alcohol and junk food and started working out to totally transform himself into the spitting image of Borg. On the flipside, Shia LaBeouf may not resemble McEnroe, but the actor’s erratic disposition helped him naturally segue into the role for one the finest performances of his career.
The 1980 match between Ice-Borg and Superbrat (as it was labeled) is saved for the film’s riveting climax so before we reach those last 20-minutes Metz uses flashbacks to illustrate how both were raised by authoritarian fathers leading to difficult childhoods. The young Borg (played by Björn’s real son Leo Borg) resembled the adult McEnroe complete with temper outbursts and a knack for flinging rackets while the young McEnroe (Jackson Gann) was very low-key. They were the flip side of the same coin.
Both players were dedicated to the sport from an early age, but Borg was professionally trained by Swedish coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård) who developed a father-like relationship with the boy. Skarsgård delivers a warm performance as Borg’s mentor in one of the best coach-player on-screen relationships since Mickey and Rocky.
Metz keeps the film moving at a brisk pace while highlighting 21-year old McEnroe’s rise in the sport complete with frequent outbursts while the machine-like 24-yeard old Borg keeps an eye on the rising American. While most people viewed McEnroe’s behavior as juvenile, Borg spotted the method to his rival’s madness, it was a form of concentration for the aloof pro. Both players studied each other to prepare for the 1980 match where McEnroe subdued his temper out of respect for the player he admired.
Stand-ins were used for some of the scenes in the climactic match; however, both actors did their homework which included memorizing the key plays of that intense game. When McEnroe entered the court, he was booed by the Wimbledon crowd but by the end of the fifth and final set, the American player had earned the respect of the cheering crowd who just witnessed one of the greatest moments in sports history. LaBeouf and Gudnason are electrifying in the best on-screen rivalry since Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl battled it out in Ron Howard’s “Rush.”
Opens Friday April 13 at Alamo Drafthouse Mason Park (Houston) and Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar (Austin). Also available VOD