Sports movies present a unique opportunity for the filmmakers: They are given free range to re-imagine for the viewer something already familiar to an audience’s eyes. Professional sports telecasts are constructed with the intention of keeping as much of the field as possible in view at all times. Care goes in to ensuring that the viewer-at-home is able to experience the game as if they are there. Without having to worry about this, filmmakers of sports movies have much more freedom. They’re able to capture the action on screen — whether that’s a stinging tennis serve or a tense penalty kick — in a way that makes the relationship between the audience and the athlete far more intimate.
This type of artistic approach to spectating a tennis match is one of the many strengths of Janus Metz’s new film “Borg Vs. McEnroe,” a biopic following the rivalry of two of the greatest tennis players in the ’70s and ’80s and of their meeting in the 1980s Men’s Wimbledon Tennis Tournament. Metz approaches filming the athletic portions of the film with what seems like two complementary philosophies: He jumps between a range of closer, kinetic shots of Borg and McEnroe, and a range of wide views of the whole court. Metz manages to make the matches feel more like fight scenes from an action movie than professional tennis.
The two central athletes begin the film under very different pretenses. Having won the tournament the previous four years, Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason, “Blowfly Park”) enters seeking to win his fifth — something no one had done before. John McEnroe (Shia LeBouf, “Transformers”) aims at knocking Borg off his seat on the international tennis throne. In an interesting way, the titular Borg-McEnroe rivalry exists primarily secondhand. In the film, Borg and McEnroe don’t even interact until their climactic championship match. Instead, “Borg Vs. McEnroe” presents the journeys and the development of the two main characters separately, growing the dueling personas as polar opposites, primed for a fight. Borg is the carefully-tuned machine, a testament to perfection on and off the court; McEnroe is the hot-head youth looking to light the world ablaze with every set. These two character foundations are reinforced to the point of belaboring from the first scenes of the movie, but in the end the film earns them, putting them to good use.
The film uses the character flaws built into Borg and into McEnroe to create a satisfying ending, even if only one of them can go home the champion that year. It doesn’t feel so one sided, as both seem to leave the tournament different players, and different people, than when they went in. It may not be the most unique of endings — much of the payoff coming from a slightly telegraphed maturation in one of the leads — but the execution deserves praise if nothing else.
Gudnason and LaBeouf fill their respective roles of the athlete-cyborg and the vulgar punk so naturally, it begs the question of how much their real life personalities differ from the onscreen personas. Stellan Skarsgard and Tuva Novotny also give great performances in their supporting roles, the quartet rounding out into a knockout cast.