In Cinemas

McEnroe review – wonderfully watchable study of tennis’s enfant terrible

John McEnroe's intensity and brilliance is analysed with entertaining, intelligent brevity in Barney Douglas's gripping doc

Even in the world of tennis – a hyper-individualistic sport that seems genteel on the surface but, in the end, breaks down into a brutal and lonely gladiator match – John McEnroe in his prime had an unnatural level of drive. Here is a man whose intensity was so infamous that the choice to play him in biopic Borg/McEnroe was Shia LaBeouf, and it’s this intensity that director Barney Douglas seeks to get to the heart of in this entertaining and fleet-footed documentary.

McEnroe covers John McEnroe’s entire adult life to date, but it’s to Douglas’s great credit that the film never feels overstretched. It gives you just enough of everything – McEnroe’s style of play, his furious court screaming matches with the umpires, his home life, and his friendship with other players like Bjorn Borg and Vitas Gerulaitas – to leave you satisfied but not overwhelmed.

Douglas never allows himself to get bogged down, keenly identifying the single most interesting thing about any given McEnroe topic and honing in on it without filler, whilst the interviews with the man himself are fun and honest, avoiding the hagiography that a film like this always risks. He's able to link his own flaws as a player to his flaws as a man off the court in a way that shows an incisive self-awareness, and Douglas often cross-cuts these moments with interviews with the rest of the McEnroe family, from his brothers to his children, to build a richer psychological profile than you might expect given the breadth of the piece as a whole.

The archive footage of McEnroe’s matches is also thrilling, and I genuinely felt like I had a greater understanding of the game of tennis as a whole after watching them analysed by the various talking heads (everyone from Borg to Keith Richards makes an appearance). Some of Douglas’s stylistic flourishes are a bit tacky and overblown, taking the wrong lessons from the world of sports punditry, and the framing device that follows McEnroe around on one of his nightly walks through New York is odd, but when a documentary is just this much fun to watch it’s hard to begrudge its shortcomings.

McEnroe is released in UK cinemas from 15 July.

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