It's 1980, and Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) is getting ready to defend his Wimbledon title for the fifth time, but this time he must face the brash and aggressive John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) for the first time...
Although the title of the film suggests that the film is a character study of the intense rivalry that occurred in the '80s between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, it's really not that at all. Instead, Borg vs. McEnroe - or Borg / McEnroe, in some other territories - is much more heavily sidled to one of the characters rather than the other. Naturally, as this is a Swedish film with a Swedish director and even dropped McEnroe from the release title in Sweden, Borg takes up a vast amount of the screentime. It's in this that the film's greatest weakness comes - both from the actor playing Borg, and Borg himself.
Even those with a cursory knowledge of tennis will know or at least have some idea of Borg's outward personality and relative lack of one. The film goes to great lengths, via hyperbolic commentators and intrusive voice-overs from reporters and journalists, that Borg is "a machine, ice cold and makes no mistakes," but we're then shown the man behind the visage - someone who is much more fragile than people realise, bound by superstitions and takes a workmanlike approach to tennis. The film zips back and forth in time, and we're shown Borg as a child - played by Borg's real-life son, no less - who is full of anger and recklessness, but is eventually mellowed and mentored by Stellan Skarsgard. That's all well and good of course, but the fact is that none of it is terribly interesting and it's handled in such a familiar, tedious way that you don't find yourself caring all that much for the character. Gudnason plays Borg as a monosyllabic control freak, gently murmuring responses to Skarsgard and without a hint of charisma or screen presence. More often than not, you wonder whether he's just bored or if he's actually boring.
LaBeouf, on the other hand, gives a surprisingly restrained performance as McEnroe. Sure, we know the character as being a loudmouthed, antagonistic caricature and LaBeouf's own persona lends itself to the role, but it's in the scenes off court and in the locker room where the nuance and understanding of the character comes through. LaBeouf's McEnroe doesn't care about anything other than tennis, and is at his most collected when he's screaming at an umpire. Again, like with Borg's flashback scenes, they're done without a hint of subtlety or inventiveness. McEnroe's mother, after telling her that he scored ninety-six out of a hundred in a maths test, asks him what happened to the other four. It's that heavy-handed with it. Yet, in spite of the poor script, LaBeouf's McEnroe makes for a compelling performance and gives the film some desperately-needed energy.
Janus Metz' direction isn't particularly exciting or engaging, and the constant use of commentators to guide a tennis match through becomes grating after the second or third time it occurs. Likewise, the pallid tones of the film's palette seems out of step with the bright, almost garish colours from footage of the real match. This, in turn, gives the tennis matches a dryness that makes them both visually uninteresting and reduces their impact in the context of the whole story. It's a real shame, because there's definitely an interesting story to be told here and with a stronger director and a more subtle screenplay, it could be something worth talking about.
Sadly, this isn't that film.