Courtesy of NEON Entertainment
I’ve always thought that Shia LaBeouf has been a terrific actor, with the ability to tackle good scripts with precision and attitude. Whether you date back to “Holes,” “Disturbia,” and yes, “Transformers” he seemed to bring a certain velocity and elevate the material, that, otherwise, seemed less than original. Recently, with the likes of: “Fury,” “American Honey,” and “Charlie Countryman” we’ve seen a departure from those days of teenage angst. But in the new sports drama “Borg vs McEnroe,” about the iconic 1980s Wimbledon matchup of two tennis legends, LaBeouf has found the perfect vehicle for his talents and delivers an ace of a performance.
LaBeouf tackles the role of John McEnroe, a hot-headed expletive-spewing, tennis underdog that took on four-time champion Bjorn Borg in a heated championship matchup, which has all but defined the sport. The world always seemed tuned into McEnroe, because he was so unpredictable and notorious for not holding back his frustrations. Every time the umpire deemed a serve out, you better believe McEnroe was ready to fire back, even if it was. LaBeouf, no stranger to TMZ blow ups and abrupt public drunkenness, seems, ironically, right at home. But the key here is, LaBeouf also brings a veil of likability to John, especially as director Janus Metz expertly splices back and forth between his childhood into the present.
The other top-billed player, and who the film allows the most screen time to, ist Borg, played exceptionally by Swedish born actor Sverrir Gudnason and looking at a side by side picture comparison, you can see the resemblance. Metz does focus heavily on Borg through his early struggles to when he overcomes strong adversity - (as good as this movie is, it still can’t outrun conventional sports movie mechanics) - when I would’ve welcomed a biopic approach that allowed more time for McEnroe to shine too.
But what Metz does well, certainly subsides any major doubts during the tennis match sequences, which are directed with a deft sense of urgency and clarity. Even if you don’t follow tennis, the film does a fine job making sure you’ll be able to keep up. The climactic showdown, in particular, is relentlessly entertaining.
There are also some tender moments as well, between the two players and their coaches. Borg’s is Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard - excellent) a three-time quarterfinalist for Wimbledon who saw potential in Borg at a young age; and McEnroe’s father (Ian Blackman) whose doing his best to make sure John stays level-headed. Metz could’ve easily played up these obvious clichés, but instead brings them down to more believable heights, which only gives the film more credibility as a sports flick.
What you get with “Borg vs McEnroe” is a fine sports movie, arguably the best one about tennis that I’ve seen, and two actors who understand the stakes in which they're playing at. Borg is riding a wave of success, competing for his fifth consecutive championship (“Nobody will remember that I won four times in a row. Only that I lost the fifth.”) He makes a valid point about how quickly the public wants to watch an icon fall, and that’s a strong driving force behind the picture. But it's LaBeouf, sorry Gudnason, who really steals the show as he must also deal with the complexity of being a huge underdog and comes out the true winner in this tug of war. If LaBeouf ever needed a comeback vehicle, I think he's found it.
Rated R for language throughout and some nudity
Runtime: 1 hr. and 47 minutes