Silver Screen Cinema

Challengers Review

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Amazon MGM Studios

Rated: R

131 Minutes

Directed by: Luca Guadagnino

Starring: Zendaya, Josh O'Connor, Mike Faist


Challengers Poster

The best tennis movie of all time is a film nobody thinks of as a tennis movie. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, tennis player Farley Granger gets involved in a bizarre murder swap plan with nutcase Robert Walker. While the film’s murder swap theme has become a staple of crime fiction, the movie also helped establish the cinematic image of the male tennis player as a sex object. That image, times two, is front and center in Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers. But, unlike other tennis movies, Challengers captures the feel of a tennis match in a way no other film has.

Challengers is the story of a loosely connected threesome. Thirteen years ago, Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) were a star junior doubles team that won that title at the U.S. Open. They met Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), a rising superstar who won the women’s junior title there. The boys were instantly smitten by Tashi; she was intrigued by their interest. A 

highly erotic but impossible-to-describe three-way encounter followed in the boys’ hotel room that night. From there, Art and Tashi went on to college while Patrick became a struggling novice tennis pro and Tashi’s boyfriend. But when an on-court injury ended Tashi’s career, Patrick subsequently avoided her while Art was there to comfort her. Tashi became Art’s coach and, later, husband, and his career skyrocketed. Meanwhile, Patrick drifted into low-level professional obscurity.

As the movie begins, it’s 2019, and Art has won several Grand Slam titles, but his career has peaked. He and Tashi are still endorsement superstars, with their pictures appearing on buildings and billboards everywhere. Art still wants to win the upcoming U.S. Open to accomplish a career Grand Slam, but he’s planning to hang it up soon afterward. Tashi enters him in a small tournament (sponsored by a local tire dealership) as a tune-up for the Open. Patrick is also entered, although by now, he’s reduced to sleeping in his car and bumming a sandwich from a tournament official. Winning the local tourney will get Patrick an invitation to qualify for the Open, perhaps his last chance to redeem his career.

“Challengers” is told through a series of flashbacks, as scenes of the three main characters in 2019 alternate with those depicting their younger days. The shifting timelines are a bit confusing initially, but later tie into the movie’s overall back-and-forth tennis vibe. This film has an intelligent script from Justin Kuritzkes that often intimates the current status of the main characters rather than spelling everything out. Although Tashi broke off her relationship with Patrick, their chemistry and tension are still present (as evidenced by a one-nighter in Atlanta Art spotted. As teenagers, Patrick and Art were known as “Fire and Ice,” and that dichotomy shows in the actors’ performances. But Faist and O’Connor don’t make their characters one-dimensional. The rivalry and tension between them are still there, but audiences get a better feel for the characters as vulnerable people. Zendaya seems more aloof, partly because that’s how her character is written. I liked that the film ended without ready answers and a pat resolution to the conflict among the characters, either on or off the court. 

Other than the hotel room three-way encounter, what most people will take away from Challengers is a visceral appreciation for the sport itself, as depicted by Guadagnino. The tennis sequences are unlike anything I’ve seen in a movie before, following the ball at times. At other times, the camera becomes the ball. Guadagnino uses CGI to place tennis balls in the shots, and the effects are seamless. Expect some technical Oscar nominations for sound, editing, and cinematography here. Unlike other sports movies, “Challengers” doesn’t present audiences with someone to root for or against in the climactic match. The outcome is secondary. As the match proceeded, I was eager to know how it would end, not because I cared who would win, but because I wondered if Guadagnino could craft a suitable ending for the spectacle. He did. 

Even for those movie fans with no interest in tennis or the romantic angles, Challengers is an audible and visual delight. It reminded me sometimes of the old Cinerama travelogues of the 1950s that used new technology to give the audience a previously unknown experience. The underlying story in Challengers would make a decent but unremarkable Lifetime movie if you toned down the language and sex scenes. Add the tennis imagery, and the result is some action that’s unforgettable, not for the result but for the process itself. Challengers is a down-the-line winner.    

In this scene, Zendaya, Josh O'Connor, and Mike Faist discuss what the game of tennis really is:

Watch Luca Guadagnino on Amazon Prime Video:

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