Usually when a movie bombs in spectacular fashion there is a very good reason why. Whether it was production delays, a star who finds trouble in the media, or a general lack of quality, there is usually an obvious reason to point to why something failed. Thus far however, it’s hard to say exactly why Borg Vs McEnroe is one of 2018’s biggest losers. Despite an 83% positive rating from critics at RottenTomatoes and an audience score nearly as good, the film barely broke the surface in terms of attention and with a $65 million dollar budget, there is not excuse for the movie tanking so badly.
Borg vs McEnroe takes audiences behind the scenes of one of the most epic battles in tennis history, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe’s spectacular fight over the 1980 Wimbledon Championship. With Borg chasing his 5th straight Wimbledon and McEnroe the cocky upstart, making consistent headlines with his consistently bad on-court behavior, the match up was instantly iconic and more than lived up to its legendary expectations.
Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnasson) wasn’t always a Swiss Cyborg with laser focus and no emotion on the court. As we learn from Borg vs McEnroe, Borg had more in common with the young John McEnroe than we ever imagined. Borg was cocky and filled with rage as a teenager and nearly found himself kicked out of tennis before he could ever become a champion. Borg nearly chose hockey as a more apt outlet for his rage filled tennis game.
Then, Borg met Swedish tennis legend Lennert Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard). It was Bergelin who rescued Borg’s career when he was nearly kicked out of the game as rage fueled teen. It was Bergelin who taught Borg to slow down and take one point at a time and, most importantly, not to let his opponent see his emotions. Despite Borg’s cyborg behavior on the court we learn from the movie that he had perhaps a form of OCD, or at least a deeply held superstition, that drove him mad and could at times hamper his on court abilities.
John McEnroe is at once more and less complicated that Borg. As played by Shia LeBeouf, McEnroe is quick to rage on the court and stand-offish off the court. McEnroe was friendlier than Borg and actually made friends on the tennis tour, while Borg practiced in private and rarely left his highly appointed hotel room with his ritualistic layout of tennis gear and his fetishistic approach to sleep temperature.
There are more interesting details about Borg and McEnroe in Borg vs McEnroe but I won’t spoil them here. Director Janus Metz does terrific job of setting the stage for Borg and McEnroe’s epic match. We get a great sense of the character’s histories and how they form the men they are on the court and the more volatile behind the scenes moments have a riveting quality in the context of the final act of the movie, the Wimbledon final of 1980.
Sverrir Gudnason is a real life tennis pro, once Sweden’s number 1 player though not someone who broke out into worldwide fame. His credible impression of Borg on the court is a highlight even as the film appears to be hiding Lebeouf behind quick cuts. Lebeouf does well to look credible but it’s hard to imagine he would be good enough to recreate the actual style of Borg vs McEnroe as even the real life Borg and McEnroe struggled to find the magic in real life.
Borg vs McEnroe is a terrific sports movie. It’s conventional but still compelling. Gudnason is strong for a guy who plays professional tennis for a living. He’s genuinely compelling as Borg even if it never seems like we get a glimpse into what he’s really thinking. LeBeouf gets the showier part and it works as Lebeouf’s own youthful troubles seem to somewhat mirror McEnroe’s.
Why did Borg vs McEnroe fail so spectacularly? The film made only $7 million dollars worldwide on a budget of $65 million dollars. It’s hard to say why it happened but it wasn’t the fault of the movie. The film is solid, well made and well acted. The characters are compelling, the tennis is exciting. What happened to make fans reject the film so hard by not buying a ticket? It’s baffling but there it is. $65 million dollars down the drain all because audiences decided to skip on seeing a pretty good sports movie to the point that it didn’t even make it to nationwide release.
Borg vs McEnroe is available now on Blu-Ray, DVD and On-Demand Streaming.