Early in the Swedish-made sports movie Borg vs. McEnroe, Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) ducks into a Monaco bar to escape a pack of screaming girls after practicing for an especially tricky upcoming Wimbledon championship. The tennis star is without his wallet, so he helps out schlepping boxes in return for a free espresso and tries to convince the bartender that he's an electrician by trade. The barkeep doesn't buy it, and really, who would when confronted with those chiseled facial bones, maximally toned leg muscles, and blond curls improbably squashed under a baseball cap?
Lest you imagine, though, that all you're about to see is the humble man of the people beneath the superstar, director Janus Metz and screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl have a different tale to tell about the legendary rivalry between Borg, a four-time Wimbledon winner, and John McEnroe, the brash American upstart with a killer backhand and truly awful manners.
Which is not to say that the smoothly crafted, satisfyingly earnest Borg vs. McEnroe ventures far from the standard sports biopic template. There they are: the backstories full of heartache and deficit parenting; the intertitles insisting that sports are the ultimate metaphor for life; the separate narrative paths all inexorably leading to a Great Event — in this case the fabled 1980 Wimbledon game in which two stellar players bludgeoned one another into a seemingly endless run of match points before one came out on top. Nicely gussied-up with special effects and tennis-playing stand-ins intercut with actual footage, the finale is a riveting spectacle. The rest is biography, heavy on the flashbacks, of two radically different temperaments with more history in common than meets the eye.
Shia LaBeouf surely didn't have to dig too deep within himself to come up with a terrific rendition of McEnroe, a curly-headed, ferocious competitor who is rude and aggressive on and off the court, prone to cheating even a close friend, a showy fighter with a killer left backhand. A player with more drive than finesse, McEnroe is equally unpopular with umpires and the crowd, and he pretends not to care that the crowd invariably roars for his graceful, focused opponent.
The twist is that Gudnason's Borg comes off as his own species of psychological wreck. Shy, anxious and compulsive, he travels with umpteen tennis racquets whose precise tension he tests out by walking on them before every match. And though he is an elegant stylist on the court — a gentleman in a gentleman's sport despite, or more likely because of, his working-class background — Borg fails to attend to the mounting frustration of his patient, longtime girlfriend (Tuva Novotny). Both men, we learn, had troubled childhoods that scarred them with a load of rage and frustration and left them eternally incomplete, forever striving for elusive perfection. In the film one of them is rescued and steadied by a coach (Stellan Skarsgard) who has seen enough failure himself to understand that anger and pain must be channeled, not repressed, and that as in life, every game must be won point by point.
Their undernourished childhoods have made unhappy winners of both men. One of them has to lose this round; in this big-hearted movie, life is more than the sum of its victories and defeats. The finale has us rooting for it to be true that, in the nail-biting final stretch of the game, Borg murmured a few words to his opponent that defrosted some hard, undernourished place in both their hearts — and allowed them to grow into men, menschen, and lifelong friends.