Movies, Reviews

Challengers Review: Guadagnino Serves up an Ace Sports Romance

Zendaya’s Tashi Duncan declares she wants to watch, “some good fucking tennis,” in the first act of Challengers. That’s exactly what Luca Guadagnino delivers, along with a complex love triangle, in the new romantic sports drama.

With a screenplay from Justin Kuritzkes, the story follows coach Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) and her tennis player husband Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) plotting a career comeback that sends them back into the orbit of player Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor). The trio’s complicated history unfolds via flashbacks interspersed during a final match between the two men at a “Challengers” tennis tournament.

It’s a riveting sports movie framed within a love triangle as Patrick is Tashi’s ex-boyfriend and Art’s former best friend. (Just in case you haven’t already been told 100 times, Kuritzkes’ wife Celine Song wrote and directed last year’s lauded love triangle drama Past Lives.)

Challengers. Photo Courtesy Amazon/MGM Studios. Mike Faist and Zendaya.

Although she passes much more easily as 18-year-old prodigy Tashi than as a 30-something Tashi, Zendaya holds her own as the lead star. Tashi is the heart of the story, the vital thing that causes her two leading men’s blood to pump on and off the court, and the character the audience will zero in on wanting to understand.

Tashi suffers the most heartbreaking moment of the film, a career-ending injury already revealed in the trailer. In even this darkest moment, Zendaya knows when to turn on Tashi’s vulnerability and when to slam the door closed to create her enigmatic character.

Her easy banter as younger Tashi gives way to a fiercer single-minded adult who conveys more with a single look than words. Her energy never dips it’s just reconfigured as the character ages, though she still gets her dramatic outbursts in here and there, especially directed at frenemy Patrick.

Tashi has always been playing chess while her peers play checkers, but her machinations are held even closer to the vest as you watch her mind calculating during the key tennis final. Zendaya’s performance is mostly wordless while the men involved hang on her every look, a mastermind that would put Taylor Swift to shame.

Sharing as much chemistry with Zendaya as they do each other, O’Connor and Faist play excellent foils, the so-called “fire and ice” their duo is nicknamed when playing junior doubles. Art plays a percentage game on the court and in life while Patrick is all self-assured ego.

O’Connor arguably gets to have more fun as the sleazy Patrick, but Faist’s Art is the more tender and sympathetic of the duo up until the end when you see the man Tashi always thought he could be. It’s not quite the breakout role either experienced with The Crown and West Side Story respectively, but you’ll be just as invested in their friendship as you are in the love triangle.

Challengers. Photo Courtesy Amazon/MGM Studios. Mike Faist and Zendaya.

As put on display in the marketing, Challengers does offer steamy moments, including a three-way makeout early on and more than one parking lot rendezvous, but its eroticism lies more frequently in the subtle. There is no sport without bodies and Guadagnino doesn’t neglect capturing the human form in all its sweaty gleaming or unrestrained locker room display.

For the characters involved, particularly Tashi, sex, love, and tennis are inextricable. If you’re only paying attention to the more explicit scenes you’re missing out on those connections.

Essential to the story is the blaring score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The techno music, drenched in as much synth as the players are in sweat, backs pivotal scenes and adds an extra layer of urgency to the already tense scenes.

It’s guaranteed to become the most beloved and replayed score from the duo since their work on The Social Network.

In addition to the score, there are a few key song selections that add to the movie, including a Springsteen needle drop and a Brazilian song “Pecado” by Caetano Veloso that drips with longing.

Compared to Guadagnino’s previous outings, Challengers is much more visually frenetic but occasionally gets lost in excess.

Challengers. Photo Courtesy Amazon/MGM Studios. Zendaya and Josh O’Connor

The bold choices usually work better within the confines of a dizzying tennis match than off the court. It’s hard to say who is the bigger scene stealer when Tashi makes her devil’s bargain in the parking lot, the wind machine, or the bizarre slow-mo.

The final act is a breathtaking game of tennis where the cinematography is pushed to its limits, switching to the POV of the players, the ball itself, and even a translucent view underneath the court in an arresting display.

Even with all the bells (balls?) and whistles, the ending would be less without the true tension provided by the character’s history built up throughout the film. Patrick and Art start playing for keeps when the real stakes are revealed in a callback to an earlier match.

The cinematography, music, and performances of Challengers all combine for a knockout experience that goes by fast despite a 2-hour 11-minute runtime.

Challengers’ electrifying ending will satisfy anyone invested in the tennis match happening before them. However, it will take understanding what Tashi really wants, something the character herself doesn’t always seem to know, to experience the full thrill of the conclusion.

Challengers is currently playing in theaters.

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