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Film review: Heady tennis romance ‘Challengers’ aces action-packed melodrama

Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O’Connor (left to right) star as tennis players in a love triangle in the romantic drama “Challengers.” Directed by Luca Guadagnino, the film released in theaters Friday. (Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

“Challengers”

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

April 26

By Natalie Agnew

April 26, 2024 7:06 p.m.

This post was updated April 28 at 7:17 p.m.

In this backhanded game of love and tennis, “Challengers” has an ace up its sleeve.

Slicing into theaters Friday, director Luca Guadagnino’s riveting romantic melodrama circles a tightly coiled love triangle culminating in a tennis match showdown. The twisted trio in question is former star player turned coach Tashi (Zendaya), her husband and coachee Art (Mike Faist), and his ex-best friend – and Tashi’s ex-boyfriend – Patrick (Josh O’Connor). Operatic, cinematic and never self-serious, “Challengers” glistens with muscular camerawork and showstopping stars worthy of an encore.

A routine explorer of relationships, “Call Me by Your Name” and “Bones and All” auteur Guadagnino lights the film with his characteristic flair for sensuality. Here, he trades dabbling in peach fornication and cannibalism for the solid ground of tennis courts. With tight close-ups, every drop of sweat is a symphony and each athletic exercise a ballet, as tennis matches transmit off-court tension with grunted forehands. In his lens, Guadagnino casts each actor as a preeminent icon, and their potent performances solidify their status.

[Related: Film review: ‘La Chimera’ unearths drama, romance through dreamlike film sequences]

With the bass drop in the opening scene, “Challengers” announces Emmy-winner Zendaya’s striking arrival in her first leading performance in a film. She skillfully steps into Tashi’s Chanel espadrilles to portray a viciously charismatic competitor whose age and injury sharpen her head tilt and downturned mouth of a death stare. Although an intensely imposing figure, Zendaya is imperfectly believable, adding layers of insecurity as she stretches her neck and wrings her hands from the sidelines of the life she used to live.

Each angle of the love triangle fires on all cylinders to construct blistering chemistry, and O’Connor and Faist add their fair share of heat. “The Crown” actor O’Connor has the smile lines of self-proclaimed “piece of shit” Patrick’s perpetual snarky grin in contrast with Faist’s picture of affable boyish docility that camouflages Art’s cruel underbelly. Whether the two are exuberantly chasing each other in a boisterous reunion or engaging in merciless verbal posturing in a sweaty sauna, no viewer can doubt their connection or the star they revolve around. There’s a thin line between obsession, love and hatred as the warmth of their friendship fades to feuds over their shared romantic history, which the film explores in flashbacks.

Mirroring the rip-roaring aggression of the final clash, writer Justin Kuritzkes and “Bones and All” editor Marco Costa set a breakneck pace, bouncing between current and past timelines. The film starts with the present – the titular Challenger tournament final at New Rochelle Tennis Club – and previous events are nimbly interspersed in title-carded flashbacks with years measured in hair and makeup adjustments and exposition dropped on a Tinder date. Although somewhat sacrificing the clarity of the storyline for tempo, no scene drags in 131 stimulating minutes.

At one point, Tashi states, “We’re always talking about tennis,” and Kuritzkes treats every scene as a two-person rally with cutting dialogue to match. Every barb is a match point, whether it’s an intimate conversation where Tashi reveals to Art that she’ll leave him if he loses or one in which Art and Patrick trade subtext-charged churro bites. However, the theatrical dialogue runs the risk of overexertion to the point of injury, with phrases such as, “I’m taking such good care of my little white boys” packing more cringe than punch.

In this low-stakes match turned high by interpersonal hazards, “Challengers” swims in melodramatics but consciously relishes in its premise rather than unnecessarily apologizing for it. The droll soap opera finds comedy in the outrageous height of emotions, such as Tashi slapping a cigarette from Patrick’s mouth or the slow-motion windstorm makeout scene set to jarring New Year’s choir music. Every frame counts, and purposefully showy camerawork perfectly complements this maximalist tone.

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Glorious in its spectacle, Guadagnino and his frequent collaborator cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom ceaselessly smash innovative shots across the court. Accompanied by an out-of-this-world ’80s adrenaline-fueled synth score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the camera acts as the ball flying directly into the audience’s faces and standing in for opposing players, darting between the net and even transforming into the court itself. In addition, these cinematic acrobatics are grounded in tangible tennis touches like pre-serve routines and racket-demolishing breakdowns.

The final 20 minutes rip out the film’s beating heart and put it back in again with an exulting scream. Time stands still in a match tiebreak as Patrick leverages Art’s weakness in a killing blow, placing the ball in the throat of the racket before a serve in a callback to an earlier scene. Subverting the anticipated reward of an ultimate point, Art falls over the net on an overhead smash for an equally satisfying embrace between the two players. With Tashi’s trademark victorious yell, she wins in the end by witnessing “some good fucking tennis.”

Positively intoxicating, there are no losers when the competition is this electric.

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Natalie Agnew
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