It’s the summer of 1980, and you’re in the crowd at Wimbledon.
Do you remember the cheers? Björn Borg’s luscious locks and John McEnroe’s ferocity?
Do you remember who won?
Of course you don’t. Nor will many of the people who see “Borg vs. McEnroe,” which had its wide release in the U.S. on Friday.
Because they’re probably all going to see if Shia LaBeouf will do anything wild.
But the important thing is to get them through the door. Then the magic can happen. That warm-toned, feeling-like-you-were-really-part-of-something-you-weren’t-alive-for goodness.
So, the classic: “based on a true story” flashes across the screen. Then an Andre Agassi quote, perfectly apropos.
“It's no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence. Because every match is a life in miniature.”
Yup, another sports movie that will radiate something deeper. But is it really that deep? Or does the bouncing score just make for good suspense?
If you’re looking to make jokes, you’ll be upset. As it turns out, “Holes” wasn’t a fluke — LaBeouf is a good actor. He’s good enough to be completely believable as American tantrum thrower John McEnroe. Stick him next to Swedish dreamboat Sverrir Gudnason as four-time Wimbledon champion (will it be five?!) Björn Borg and it’s a match — sorry — made in heaven.
Real-life rivals turned best friends, McEnroe and Borg were slated as opposite in many ways throughout their overlapping careers. The movie plays into this with all the old tricks: soft outdoor lighting for Borg versus dim rooms for McEnroe, instrumentals versus blasting Blondie.
They’re called “the gentleman and the rebel,” “the sledgehammer and the stiletto.”
But there's an old and overdone cinematic lesson here — maybe they’re not that different after all.
Building up to the big match, the movie spends much of its time on lens-flared flashbacks to the players’ childhoods.
Though it’s really all about the main opponents, supporting actors play in wonderfully. Stellan Skarsgård is in all his Nordic glory as Borg’s lifetime coach, Lennart Bergelin. Young Borg is played by the athlete’s real-life son, Leo Borg, before transitioning to the darling Markus Mossberg for the teenage years.
Jackson Gann is also sweet as young multiplication whiz McEnroe, but it’s hard to focus on his acting chops when his hair is that curly. His backstory isn’t given as much time.
With so much of the film in Swedish, subtitles are key. Because a lot of the action depends on a scoreboard this is no big deal.
Honestly, the great thing about recounting a tennis match 38 years later is that those who aren’t keen on the sport probably won’t know the outcome. It’s an easily googleable spoiler, but it’s more fun to save it.
Because — as it turns out — the thwack of a tennis ball on a tightly strung racket makes for good sound editing. And good enough entertainment.
And slow motion shots of those hairstyles? Uff-da.