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  • Writer's pictureS.J.

'Challengers' review: Zendaya plays games with two men in Luca Guadagnino's sweaty drama

Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O'Connor sitting on hotel beds
Warner Bros. Pictures

There's a reason why throuple rhymes with trouble, and there's also a reason why you might need a sweatband or three because tennis can be quite hot sometimes. Romantic sports drama Challengers exemplifies all of that with plenty of lust, sweat, balls and different kinds of grunts along the way. Zendaya co-stars as Tashi, a former tennis wunderkind whose career got cut short due to a knee injury and who is in current timeline dating and managing her husband and pro tennis player Art (Mike Faist) who himself is looking to make a final play towards top tournaments. Tashi and Art's plans and marriage come under distress at a low-level tournament where Art is playing against Patrick (Josh O'Connor), his ex-best friend and her ex-boyfriend. We follow a nonlinear timeline from the trio's first encounter to romantic developments and to their rifts, all the way to this high-pressure match.

Challengers itself is not aiming for low-level matches and is instead interested in competing at the highest level of entertainment. Director Luca Guadagnino's latest is electric, sexy and energetic pop cinema that is somehow able to create such a high that you'll be buzzing once you exit the theatre. It all starts with Justin Kuritzkes' screenplay, which meshes its messy and complex relationship drama with a certain kind of saturated playfulness that is considered to be too risky in the current, desaturated movie landscape. It didn't used to be risky and this film's sizzle proves why that was the case.

That sort of playfulness is also a perfect match with Guadagnino's focus on body language and how it can control the frame or be used to battle for the championship title in a wicked game of romance and jealousy. There are so many instances where the director finds a new angle—either figuratively or literally alongside cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom—to complicate the matters, whether that's a storm, a shot from ''under'' the court, a shot from a perspective of the tennis ball, single beds pushed together, phallic foods, borrowed shirts and so on. With editor Marco Costa pacing every conversation like a back-and-forth play as well, the electricity of what's happening in the scenes is palpable. It all culminates in a wonderful shot featuring a racket and a ball that transforms the stakes of the final match and perhaps the ambitions of both Art and Patrick; the final few shots let you read into that as much as you want.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' seductive score plays a big part in all those back-and-forths, including the wonderfully designed tennis sequences that reflect the primal feelings of the main trio. The composer duo's techno feast smartly uses the genre's BPM range to invoke the average or slightly elevated heartbeat, with the kick being the heart's stand-in, while the euphoric synth pads and rumbling bass enhance the free-spirited movements of the characters, most of which don't stem from clever game strategy but are instead the result of naive intentions. Cues for Tashi and the final tiebreak at the end are specific highlights in that arena. That said, the sound mix often gets stuck on that as the score can be distractingly loud since it sometimes drowns out the dialogue unnecessarily and makes it sound like it was recorded with a churro.

In a similar vein, Guadagnino and Kuritzkes almost throw the game in the final act when some developments threaten to drown out the pulpy-in-a-fun-way journey that preceded them. Most of those messy swings involve Tashi and her decisions, and Challengers certainly isn't deep enough as a film to explore her motivations beyond controlling careers and games that she can no longer have or experience. It's not about winning in life, it's about playing the game with people you're attracted to on some level. Attention and lust are the drugs of choice here so when the writing tries to dip into the water filled with paths not taken, you find out that that pool is quite shallow. Luckily you pretty much forget those missteps because you're immediately after bombarded by the film's explosive last 15 minutes that compel you to lean forward in your seat.

Those 15 minutes, as well as nearly the entire second half, work incredibly well because Zendaya, Faist and O'Connor all are up to the task, even when Faist has to perform the ''How do you do, fellow kids?'' meme in real life with his backwards hat when they are playing younger versions of their characters (this movie can be pretty funny, to be fair). Sure, they don't have psychologically intricate characters to inhabit like a threesom.. I mean a three-way power struggle in this genre would suggest but they all bring the right amount of sweaty sex appeal, intense eye acting, trashy delivery of the dialogue and even some fairly believable athletic skills that you'd want in a film like Challengers. Have fun, embrace the relationship chaos, enjoy the filmmaking flourishes—it'll serve you well.

Smileys: Directing, score, screenplay, acting, tone

Frowneys: Minor issues with sound mixing

Will it be an overhead smash with audiences?


[Editor's note: Apologies for the image quality and possible inaccurate or insufficient credits. Warner Bros. Pictures didn't provide high-quality stills or proper information about the film before the publication of this review.]

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