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"BORG VS. McENROE"
(2018) (Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: As the two top tennis players prepare to battle in Wimbledon's final match, we see events from their earlier days that formed them into emotionally dissonant competitors.
PLOT:
It's 1980 and Björn Borg (SVERRIR GUDNASON) is the four-time reigning champion at Wimbledon thanks to his strict training regimen, natural talents and the support of not only his long-time coach, Lennart Bergelin (STELLAN SKARSGARD), but also his fiancée, Mariana Simionescu (TUVA NOVOTNY).

Yet despite being the number one ranked player in the world, he's become increasingly preoccupied with the prospects of possibly having to face and potentially lose to the brash and outspoken number two player in the world, John McEnroe (SHIA LaBEOUF). Unlike the seemingly emotionless Borg who's a fan favorite, McEnroe has earned the reputation of being a brat, what with throwing tantrums on the court when he doesn't agree with certain calls.

As we approach the tournament and enter the early rounds, we see the two players' formative years where they were nearly the complete opposite of who they are now, with Young John (JACKSON GANN) being something of a math savant, while young Björn (LEO BORG when young, MARCUS MOSSBERG when a middle teen) is a fiery kid and then teen who regularly throws tantrums, only to have Lennart finally rein him in over years and years of practice.

As the match approaches and other players such as John's friends Peter Fleming (SCOTT ARTHUR) and Vitas Gerulaitis (ROBERT EMMS) realize they stand little chance to win, everyone awaits the expected showdown between the "ice borg" and "super-brat."

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
When it comes to rivalry, such competition can swing either into positive or negative territory depending on the mindset of those involved. For instance, sibling rivalry can result in bad feelings that last for years and sometimes lifetimes. Competition between companies can sometimes result in immoral or illegal behavior in the effort to best one's business opponent.

But aside from some rare instances, it's a good thing in sports, not only for the entertainment value of those who like to watch competitors do their thing, but also for the participants in making them want to up their game, literally and figuratively, and become the best they can be.

The world of amateur and professional sports is riddled with rivalries, and while it's fun to watch rival teams play, I prefer the action that's more one on one. Sometimes that can still occur while in the team framework (think of Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson battling it out on the court decades ago) or in a sport not designed to be head-to-head (such as golf). But it's usually the actual one-on-one matchups that prove to be the most interesting, especially as the competitive encounters grow in number.

And within those, they can range from direct contact where one directly bests their opponent physically (such as boxing or mixed martial arts) to those featuring some physical distance between the competitors. The best example of the latter is tennis, and while there have been and continue to be rivalries across the decades, the best, in my opinion, were back in the 1970s and '80s, especially the one between Björn Borg and John McEnroe.

From 1978 to 1981, the two stars of the sport met 14 times, evenly splitting those matchups. Perhaps their most famous match, however, was the 1980 Wimbledon final in which Borg was the reigning four-time champion and current number one player in the world, while McEnroe was number two.

Throw in their vastly different emotional demeanors -- Borg came across as a cool, emotionless type while McEnroe was already infamous for his on-court tantrums when calls didn't go his way -- and you couldn't have asked for a more fascinating matchup. That event along with the events that molded both men in their formative youthful years is detailed in the simply titled but completely captivating "Borg vs. McEnroe."

Two of the biggest issues when telling such tales of famous and recognizable figures are finding performers who look the part and then training them and/or filming them in ways that more or less accurately portray the real-life people and their exploits. Director Janus Metz Pedersen -- working from a script by Ronnie Sandahl -- does well on both fronts.

While Shia LaBeouf isn't a carbon copy of "Johnny Mac" he's close enough and captures the essence of his tennis pro counterpart that you end up believing the performance without question. Even better is Sverrir Gudnason as Borg who's a near doppelganger of the real man (at least as much as my memory -- several decades removed -- serves me from when I watched the exploits as a teenager).

And although it initially appears Pedersen is simply going to use lots of quick shots and edits to represent the match (and others leading up to the big finale), he starts loosening up with that tactic over the course of the 100-minute runtime while simultaneously getting more creative and artsy with such footage.

Of course, only portraying the match and immediate moments leading up to that would run the risk of not seeming much more than a simple recreation of the event. Accordingly, Sandahl has the story rewind to examine both players at younger ages and when -- if everything is true and accurate -- their emotional states were quite different than what we came to know and witness.

And much of that back-story revolves around the emotionally volatile Borg (played by Markus Mossberg and Leo Borg -- yes, the real man's son -- at different stages) interacting with his coach (Stellan Skarsgard). That carries over into the present day where the coach's plugging up of those earlier emotions results in rival player Vitas Gerulaitis stating that Borg isn't an iceberg like most think, but instead is a volcano ready to blow, something to which Borg's fiancée (Tuva Novotny) can obviously sense.

While it might not be original in terms of sports dramas (especially if one is intimately familiar with the real men and their stories), all involved pull it together to create an entertaining and engaging flick. And it didn't hurt that I couldn't recall who won the match way back when, thus making the epic contest and rivalry even that much more riveting. "Borg vs. McEnroe" serves up a winning game and thus rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed April 7, 2018 / Posted April 13, 2018


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