Published Sep 08, 2017One of two tennis movies hitting the Toronto International Film Festival this year, Borg/McEnroe finds former child star-turned-Hollywood-bad-boy-turned-art provocateur Shia LaBeouf at the top of his game.
For years now, the American actor has been better known for his public persona (multiple court appearances, physical altercations et al.) than his performances. He was unpredictable — on screen and off — to say the least, and that's what makes placing him in notorious hothead John McEnroe's tennis shoes such a brilliant bit of casting.
In Janus Metz's latest film, we're first introduced to Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason), a present and precise tennis champ who's described early on in the film as "pure perfection" on the court. Then there's McEnroe, a fiery phenom with a predilection for antagonizing the sport's umpires, spectators and members of the press.
On the surface, both tennis stars look like polar opposites — one America incarnate, the other graceful European. But as Metz explores over an hour and 40 minutes of screen time, they're more similar than they seem, with both figures drawing on a deep-seated desire to win.
In that regard, Borg/McEnroe captures the art of competition like few other sports movies before it. Their visions are singular, and everything else — from their personal relationships, to sometimes-lacking backstories — fades away as the story chugs along to their final matchup. (The film's biggest fault may be its flashbacks, which are meant to chart the root of their powers but end up relying on clichés — oppressive parents; teenage tempers — instead and never fully fill in the gaps.)
The film's sound and editing department deserve a lot of the praise. Early on in the film, Borg's strikes are described as "a sledgehammer," and that's what it feels like from the first serve onwards. It's a sound that rattles through your chest; that, coupled with the film's shots of the match — filmed from straight above, in split-second close-ups or on the ground — give the sport a sense of urgency that's still lacking in its real-time depictions on TV.
Still, LaBeouf is the clear winner here, despite getting less screen time than his co-star. Much like McEnroe after winning Wimbledon in 1981, he's a force that can longer be denied.