Challengers Review

Tennis has always been a divisive sport. Some find it exciting, others find it boring and some just don’t even bother. But director Luca Guadagnino & debut screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes propose the idea that it is an intimate relationship between opponents, bouncing back and forth like a discussion or argument. Sometimes, they cause each other to run around, and sometimes, they are so in sync that nothing else around them matters, just them, the tennis ball and the court.

Much like this proposition, at its core, Challengers is just that; a story of relationships. Love and hate; success and failure; friends and enemies. These ideas and feelings are all around us, but it’s on the tennis court where these relationships are able to unfurl and reveal themselves to those watching intently truly.

Guadagnino & Kuritzkes present Challengers much like a match of tennis. Through an alternating timeline, the audience bounces in and out of the past and present as they are introduced to the film’s three main players; Zendaya’s Tashi Duncan, Josh O’Connor’s Patrick Zweig and Mike Faist’s Art Donaldson. 

All tennis players at some point in their lives; Tashi, Patrick & Art’s life experiences revolve almost entirely around the sport. The three intersect at a challenger final as Art and Patrick vie for a spot in the US Open as Tashi watches from the sideline as both Art’s wife and coach, but also as Patrick’s former partner. 

As the game unfolds, the three reminisce about their history, beginning when tennis duo (and former best friends) Patrick and Art witnessed one of Tashi’s major wins; a scenario that serves as the immediate launch of their intense and competitive relationships with one another. As the film progresses, the audience is taken from past to present, player to player and side to side as these relationships slowly reveal their truths; both on and off the court.

Guadagnino’s direction lends a fascinating style to Challengers. Feeling as if it’s taken inspiration from other mediums such as anime, the film has a distinctive visual and narrative presentation. As Art and Patrick’s final match takes place, much like a final battle in something akin to Dragon Ball Z, the audience is shown glimpses of their past that slowly reveals the mysteries of their relationship. The film also has a look to it that feels inspired by such mediums; complete with first person visuals, a shot from underneath the court and (what might be a world’s first) tennis ball cam, resulting in an almost heightened reality to the whole thing.

Paired with Guadagnino’s direction and Kuritzkes’ brilliant screenplay is a pulsating score from frequent collaborators, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Bookending most sequences, the score is a bass-thumping force that elevates each and every moment that it erupts from. Whether it be in the heat of a tennis match or in a rising conversation, the score lends its hand brilliantly to the film.

Throughout all of Challengers are these highlight moments; accentuated by a movement, a change in tone or a simple glance. These moments are made by these central performances. Mike Faist brilliantly plays a subdued Art; a player nearing the end of his career, simply ready to be able to watch Spider-Verse with his daughter and eat hamburgers. Josh O’Connor, in contrast, portrays the antagonistic ex-best friend who played the lesser hand in life and is constantly chasing the high of a one-night-stand or a simple match win in a way that is unlike anything else in the actor’s career thus far. It is Zendaya, however, who commands the film through her powerful and seductive portrayal of former prodigy, Tashi.

Whether it be Zendaya controlling a room, or Faist and O’Connor sharing subtle glances towards each other that translate, only in their minds, to full blown conversations, Challengers is a showcase of top-of-their-game talent across the board. Injected into each passing conversation, argument and tennis match is a constant bubbling of sexual tension between all three characters that always teeters on but never falls into any one court.

Kuritzkes’ screenplay is entirely entrancing because of this; constantly giving and taking the advantage from each player’s hand. With each point won in Art and Patrick’s match is a point won for the audience, as they are given more of these characters and their personal goals in the lives they lead. Guadagnino and Kuritzkes manage to create a powerful pressure cooker that culminates in some of the most exciting final moments a sports film has been given in a long time.

Challengers is a tour de force from Luca Guadagnino and Justin Kuritzkes. Infused with a powerful sexual tension, the film is an entrancing tale of conflict, redemption and complex relationships both on and off the court.

Zendaya, Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor all bring their A-game as the film’s central trio, duking it out in a match of both mental and physical competitiveness. With every backhand of the ball is another dropshot of unspoken words between these characters, which manage to carry such weight and power, it’s almost impossible not to get swept up in the spectacle of everything the film shows its audience.

Guadagnino’s visual flair alongside Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’ pulsating score lends a massive hand to this anime-inspired sports drama, complete with back-and-forth storytelling between past & present, friends to enemies story tropes and, once again, tennis ball cam. It’s sleek, sexy & electric from start to finish, with a finale to rival even the best sports film and it’s easily one of 2024’s best films.

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