Borg vs McEnroe film review: Shia LaBeouf shines in tennis biopic that only ever reaches match point

Jacob Stolworthy

Dir: Janus Metz, 100 mins, starring Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Stellan Skarsgård, Tuva Novotny

There’s a scene towards the end of tennis biopic Borg/McEnroe in which the decision to cast Shia LaBeouf as sportsman John McEnroe becomes scintillatingly clear: having proceeded to the Wimbledon finals, the hot-headed tennis pro lashes out at the media during a press conference for their insistence on discussing his unprofessional behaviour on the court as opposed to his match performance. It’s one of several scenes which see the actor - who doesn’t so much flirt with controversy as wears it like a tux - throwing expletives about as frequently as the tennis balls. LaBeouf plays to his strengths, turning in his best credit to date.

The film centres on the tournament of 1980 with Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) on the cusp of his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title who stands to be usurped as world number one by the abrasive American opponent McEnroe. Those expecting a microscopic look at two of the sport’s most notable players, however, will emerge disappointed, the title belying Borg/McEnroe’s existence as a balanced study of the duo’s rivalry (tellingly, the film’s title in Sweden is simply Borg).

While LaBeouf may be a necessary component in this particular biopic’s success - and what a sideshow he is - it’s the former that looms large once the climactic match has been won due largely to Ronnie Sandahl’s screenplay; unlike Ron Howard’s Formula 1 drama Rush (2013), which dispersed the screen time of rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda rather evenly, McEnroe’s opponent is handed the lion’s share here. Swedish actor Gudnason’s cool detachment will no doubt send Hollywood casting directors’ fingers inches closer to their phones with every move.

Rather than cram the film with the duo’s run-ins, filmmaker Janus Metz instead highlights each player’s backstory showing how their respective temperaments affect their match performance. For fans of the gentleman's sport, Borg/McEnroe will pose no shocks. Still, the final match - a thrilling 20-minute sequence - is directed with the prowess required for such an obstacle bringing to bear the style of Pablo Larraín whose films Neruda and Jackie (both 2016) proved biopics don’t have to be a by-the-numbers recount.

Sadly, Borg/McEnroe never quite reaches these heights. It may be watchable fare boosted by two dedicated performances worthy of discussion, yet this sports biopic - unlike the showdown it builds towards - fails to feel like one for the ages.

Borg/McEnroe is released in UK cinemas on 22 September