The Borg in Star Trek are an emotion-free, mechanical species with a ruthless hive mind – short for cyborg, and nothing in fact to do with the Swedish tennis player, though he could have moved among them as if to the manor Björn.Perhaps future offshoots of the Star Trek universe will devise a new villainous race called The McEnroe: scowling, curly-haired marauders motivated by a blistering sense of injustice, their time-sworn enmity with the Borg only softened by a recognition of shared demons no one understands.
John McEnroe and Björn Borg were remarkably evenly matched as rivals, for all their contrasting temperaments and playing styles. Officially pitted against each other 14 times between 1978 and 1981, they won seven of these matches apiece, before Borg’s retirement at just 26. The eighth and most pivotal of these encounters was the Wimbledon Men’s Final in 1980 – a famously nailbiting five-set epic, with Borg’s hopes of a record-breaking run of Wimbledon victories hanging in the balance.
Everything in Borg / McEnroe, a 2-for-1 biopic – think Rush on grass courts – builds to that showdown, hoping that a steady drip-feed of behind-the-scenes intrigue will stoke our excitement. The film springs off the baseline like an overegged trailer for itself, flinging us captions and stats to gear us up for the main event. And then there’s a full hour of pop psychology, digging back into the childhoods of each opponent and their wildly different approaches to anger management.
Swedish-made, Borg / McEnroe has a naturally squarer focus on Borg (Sverrir Gudnason), as a national sporting icon like no other: his trainer (Stellan Skarsgård, doing heavy-duty surrogate fathering) and girlfriend (Tuva Novotny), for instance, have far more substantial functions here than any of McEnroe’s retinue. It’s helpful to the film how isolated McEnroe becomes in this scheme – an embittered loner, with few friends, evident resentment towards his upbringing, and no love life we can discern. He’s also played by Shia LaBeouf, which is just about the ultimate way to shove him out in the cold.
Smartly cast and gluing that career ever-more-diligently back together, LaBeouf gets under the McEnroe skin with twitchy gusto. His volleys of abuse towards umpires and the crowd, liberal F-words and racket-flinging, are captured with the apt sense of him feeding off his irascibility – clearly needing it. Thanks to LaBeouf’s own notorious tabloid-baiting antics, it’s at least half a self-portrait – or rather, one of those valuable moments when an actor maps their own psyche onto a role and delivers the double image up with a vengeance.The contrast is not Borg’s inability to emote but his absolute refusal to, as a rigidly disciplined means to an end. Here we’re on far less persuasive ground. The combined effect of a corner-cutting script and superficial direction is that Gudnason comes off as a capable, photogenic doppelgänger – no more, no less.
The deal Borg and Lannart Bergelin (Skarsgård) are meant to have struck feels like pure biopic reductionism, not a thing that happened in someone’s life. As a young apprentice we see Borg losing his rag – even tearing off into a forest near Stockholm to vent his rage on the trees. And with one edict from his trainer, he switched into robot mode? It’s all too easy.As for the grand finale, it amounts to suspense defrosted and refried, and none of the sharp jump cuts director Janus Metz throws at it can quite put us there in the present tense. The hubbub builds in an exhausting crescendo, with the score going way overboard.
Oddly, it’s the aftermath you’ll remember – a simple scene with the two rivals approaching at an airport, exchanging more words than they do through the rest of the film combined. This might all be Metz’s gameplan, but it plays like a sheepish admission for a retelling so fixated on two men’s public antagonism. Their secret affinity is much more intriguing.
Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3.5/5)