Before Agassi-Sampras or Federer-Nadal/Djokovic, there was Borg-McEnroe. The men’s professional tennis circuit enjoyed a short-lived but paradigm-setting rivalry between these two court celebrities at the dawn of the 1980s. The story was pre-packaged: unparalleled style versus gritty substance, European rigor versus American iconoclasm. Its silver screen treatment “Borg vs. McEnroe” manages to infuse the titans’ first clash at Wimbledon with surprising mystique and palpable electricity. It’s a masterclass in sports moviemaking.

(Hyphens also seem to be my cardio.)

Gorgeous aerial views of the grass surface are director Janus Metz‘ brief, early glimpse of the historic Grand Slam final. He then cuts to Borg (Sverrir Gudnason, excellent) at his posh Monaco digs. This sinewy Adonis, seemingly carved from Swedish glaciers, stands on the balcony overlooking the sea. He is poised to cement his legend by winning an unprecedented fifth straight Wimbledon. But Borg makes look exhausting. He cares little for the besotted girls screaming or the awestruck boys begging for autographs. He is a rock star who wields a different stringed instrument. So why the long face?

Metz swiftly presses rewind to Borg’s Stockholm childhood for answers. Björn’s IRL son, Leo, plays the young prodigy with a combination of outsized ambition and discomfiting aloofness. The adults know he’s talented, but they worry that he may be “wrong in the head.” Young Borg volleys with a garage door, dreaming that he has stepped onto the famed Centre Court. Before long, his teenage incarnation (played by Marcus Mossberg) catches the attention of Davis Cup coach and erstwhile great hope, Lennart Bergelin (Swedish film king Stellan Skarsgård). The wise elder knows that his mentee is filled with rage that will jeopardize his brilliant future if he can’t contain it. All he needs is a steady but knowing hand. (How do you like them apples?)

Meanwhile, a 21-year-old McEnroe has established his own iconic status as the sport’s contemptible heel. He senses that he’s on the precipice of greatness; only the “Ice Man” could possibly compete at his level. The casting choice for the first bad boy to reach ATP prominence was obvious. Hollywood’s self-destructive bête noire, its reigning enfant terrible, Shia LaBeouf, infuses McEnroe with the punk spirit that belied a doggedly competitive ethos. His portrayal is, dare I say, a welcome return to form. LaBeouf hurls profanity-laced tirades, usually reserved for sideline umpires but often directed at jeering spectators, with a soupçon of spittle. If the ball made chalk fly, the official had better call it “in” or risk a temper tantrum.

Borg meanwhile is considered the gentleman, the paragon of athleticism and grace. This contrast is the central conceit of their rivalry and the film’s inflection point. The virtuosity of the script, though, lies in how Borg’s past subverts this narrative. More accurate titles might have included “Borg Featuring McEnroe” or “Borg and Bergelin,” because the dramatic core is the aforementioned relationship between student and teacher. (John Patrick is decidedly relegated offstage for most of the 107-minute runtime.) Together, coach and player develop a routine that is at once eerily superstitious and undeniably genius. Metz offers scenes with equal amounts of grace and concern showing the two men stepping on strung rackets to test their tautness or Borg obsessively checking his heart rate. Was all of this compulsivity worth it? Some might say the Challenge Cups adorning Borg’s (and, later, McEnroe’s) mantle are proof enough. But the movie’s refusal to affirm without reservation such regimented self-abnegation—especially considering the nearly universal Swedish crew—lifts it out of staid myth-making.

“Borg vs. McEnroe” is at its best when capturing the exquisite solitude of the sport. Tennis is the only major athletic contest to rest squarely on the shoulders, forearms, and feet of shorts-clad gladiators. No blame can shift to an underperforming teammate. No coach can recalibrate the strategy during a match. It is mano a mano adorned with manners. The camera focuses on Borg’s flowing locks and McEnroe’s unruly curls held in check by of-the-era headbands. We see the anguish on their faces after an ace serve zips out of reach or a return pitifully lands in the net. Metz causes heart palpitations and whitens knuckles during the “War of 18-16,” a grueling end to the fourth set in which Borg loses five championship points. The action is riveting. Without the commitment of Gudnason and LaBeouf to the stakes and their characters’ respective motivations, the final act could have collapsed to “7 Days in Hell.”

The only unforced error might be the lack of sustained attention to McEnroe’s own vexed childhood and rise. We see him prodded by a domineering mother and a proud, stern father (Ian Blackman). But the film unfortunately does not reserve enough room for a SuperBrat backstory to bookend Borg’s. Metz devotes some screen time to Björn’s relationship with fiancée Mariana (Tuva Novotny), only to emphasize how pathological devotion strains his most intimate relationships. These are minor quibbles to be sure. “Borg vs. McEnroe” succeeds beyond expectations but will likely fly under the radar given its limited release exposure. It proves that high-quality sports stories aren’t just for documentaries anymore.

CLGJr Verdict: A gripping flick for those who want their sports stories to be as compellingly written as the competition is portrayed. Gudnason and LaBeouf invest their performances with believable pathos that elevates the on-court scenes. Game, set, match.              

Borg vs. McEnroe opened Friday, April 13.

Never miss a review — sign up for email updates to the right, or like The Parsing Haus on Facebook!