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Borg vs McEnroe

Year: 2017
Production Co: SF Studios
Director: Januz Metz
Writer: Ronnie Sandahl
Cast: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LeBeouf, Stellan Skårsgard

I'm still not sure what made me want to see this movie – I had a vague recollection of the big stars of the sport in the 70s and 80s when I was a kid but have never been a fan. And there was no sociopolitical subtext that grabbed me like in Battle of the Sexes, the last biographical drama I saw about tennis.

It probably had something to do with Shia LeBeouf, who despite seeming to be a train wreck in real life is nevertheless a really good actor these days.

It's 1980 and the reigning champion of pro tennis, Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) is a bit like the way Daniel Brühl depicted Niki Lauda in Rush – ice cold, always locked down, approaching the sport with a robotic sense of strategy that makes you wonder why he bothers doing it, his approach in no way recognisable enough to be termed a love for it.

He's entering another Wimbledon where he'll face a number of opponents to win his umpteenth title, not the least of whom is John McEnroe (LeBeouf, and there hasn't been better casting since Nicolas Cage in Mandy), the brash young American everyone loves to hate for the temper he uses on reporters at press conferences, umpires and ice buckets alike.

The story follows two time periods – Borg and McEnroe and the emotional and physical stress they go through as they compete and ultimately face each other, and what they go through as kids that makes them who they are.

The latter is well done and gives the present story flesh on its bones, although the movie gives Borg a much more fleshed out childhood and development thanks to the presence of his longtime coach Lennert (Stellan Skårsgard), who plucked him from a small town Swedish tennis school and propelled him to stardom.

At times you'll wish both men would lighten the hell up and stop taking it all so seriously (despite the glory and money a win will bring) – Gudnason as Borg in particular always seeming like he's going off to war, not enjoying the process in the least. But the direction and acting carry you effortlessly along, making you invest as heavily in what both men are going through as much as they do.

The final match that makes up the climax is a recreation of the real 1980 Wimbledon final, and director Januz Metz puts us right there in the action, much like Craig Gillespie did with Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya.

At times you'll wish the action was a little bit clearer, because the game is all portrayed with very fast cuts and probably no small amount of VFX to create the ball's flight, but recreating something so chaotic as a famous and very exciting tennis match between two pros is a big ask for any director.

Like they always say about sports movies, it's a very effective character study into two very different people and what makes them tick, ably portrayed by some standout performances.

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