Challengers (2024, dir. Luca Guadagnino)

by | Apr 23, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 131 mins

UK Distributor: Warner Bros

UK Release Date: 26 April 2024

WHO’S IN CHALLENGERS?

Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist, Jake Jensen, Nada Despotovich, Naheem Garcia, A.J. Lister, Connor Aulson, Alex Bancila

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Luca Guadagnino (director, producer), Justin Kuritzkes (writer), Rachel O’Connor, Amy Pascal and Zendaya (producers), Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (composers), Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (cinematographer), Marco Costa (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A former tennis champion (Zendaya) is caught between two former best friends (O’Connor and Faist)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON CHALLENGERS?

Tennis is a complicated but exceptionally sexy sport. There is something deeply pheromonal about several aspects of the game, from the players’ elegant serves to the fresh scent of tennis balls, that it’s easy to get sucked into the spectacle, even when half the time you might not know exactly what is going on. The exact same can be said with Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers, a tennis-centric film that often lures you in with its overwhelming horniness, despite the fact that you may initially be struggling to piece together a number of elements of its complex storytelling.

It is precisely why Challengers is, undoubtedly, the greatest tennis movie yet made. There have been plenty of films about the sport, including documentaries, romantic-comedies, biopics of certain players, and even recreations of iconic matches, but exceptionally few (if any at all) have truly captured the very essence of tennis itself quite like Guadagnino’s film does. This is a film that simply is tennis, adopting the mentality and pace of a typical match with a combination of editing, music, cinematography and performance replicating the fierce back-and-forth serves that often make for compelling sport. It is enrapturing, gripping stuff, while the added elements of a somewhat trashy love triangle narrative make it hugely entertaining from a more substantial perspective.

The film, which Guadagnino directs from a script by Justin Kuritzkes, takes place during the final of a low-key tennis championship in 2019. The players are Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), a tennis champion on a losing streak that is knocking his confidence hard, and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), a less successful athlete with a bad-boy reputation and financial difficulties. Watching both of them from the side is Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), Art’s wife and coach as well as Patrick’s former girlfriend, who was herself a highly promising tennis prodigy until a career-ending injury. Several flashbacks create a much larger picture, going back as far as thirteen years prior, when Art and Patrick were inseparable best friends who are both enamoured with Tashi, but a mixture of petty jealousy and inflated ambition in their separate pursuits of her drive a wedge in their friendship, leading to the grudge match that frames this non-linear structure.

Said structure is likely to be the biggest source of frustration for many viewers, for it’s the type that tends to jump between many different places in time across this multi-year narrative, sometimes moving on to the next moment within minutes of landing at another particular period. This can make it difficult to pinpoint certain developments in the story, because although it clearly establishes when specific scenes are taking place, it moves around so quickly that there’s little time to piece together a number of vital details that are unveiled in these moments. It is a film that probably needs at least two viewings in order to fully process, since there is a lot going on that may initially be tricky to absorb all in one go.

This is all, however, part of Guadagnino and Kuritzkes’ plan to turn Challengers into a fiery filmic representation of tennis itself. The constant chronological movement that editor Marco Costa creates via his rapid-fire cutting is intended to be disorientating (much like how the constant back-and-forths in the actual sport can be), as is the thumping techno score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which fires up in the middle of otherwise quiet scenes to throw the viewer off and potentially distract from some of the dialogue. The film’s audio-visual presentation, which also includes some stylish shots by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, has you always keeping your eye on the ball that the director and writer are frequently serving between one another, which is not always made easy by the sheer speed that they are hitting said ball, but again like in actual tennis, the almost hypnotic energy is fierce enough to get your blood pumping as much as the players themselves.

As for the film’s on-screen players, there is careful calculation in how each member of the central acting trio contributes to the ongoing power struggle between them all. The chemistry between them all is electrifying, to where you can feel their passion for one another seeping in during moments when they’re particularly hostile to each other, especially the increasingly homoerotic tensions between Mike Faist’s Art and Josh O’Connor’s Patrick that, at one point, turns into a full-on make-out session between both boys for the amusement of Zendaya’s Tashi. She, meanwhile, makes significant strides in her manipulation tactics to control the overall outcome from literal courtside, from her cold treatment of husband Art during the lull in his own career to her flirtatious encounters with a still-pining Patrick, leaving her to be the true champion, in more ways than one, within this three-person game. They are all excellent in this film, and through their smooth and often sweaty physical performances the actors confidently embody the sexiness that comes with playing or simply watching tennis.

It is a smart and steady piece of filmmaking that truly understands the passion, dedication, and – yes – the sexiness of the sport itself, while at the same time indulging in a crowd-pleasing romance plot with Guadagnino’s European sensibilities very much intact despite the bigger Hollywood studio backing. Challengers is to tennis what Whiplash is to jazz drumming, as both films are fierce and often brutal in their deconstruction of the psychology behind the ambition in those fields, while its simple yet complex arc of pushing oneself to fully embodying the spirit of the profession allows for intimate character moments that are accentuated by powerful use of the visual medium.

Though perhaps Whiplash benefits from a more straightforward structure, Challengers sets the net high for any other tennis movie to come in its wake.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Challengers is a ferocious filmic representation of tennis that applies similar back-and-forth techniques in its filmmaking, from fast-paced and intentionally disorientating editing to physical and intimate lead performances, that help make it perhaps the greatest tennis movie yet made.

Five out of five stars

JustWatch


JustWatch

Other recent reviews:

Sting (2024, dir. Kiah Roache-Turner)

A mysterious little spider soon grows to terrifying sizes…

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga (2024, dir. George Miller)

A young Furiosa attempts to make her way home in a post-apocalyptic wasteland…

The Garfield Movie (2024, dir. Mark Dindal)

The lazy cat Garfield comes face-to-face with his long-lost father…

The Strangers: Chapter 1 (2024, dir. Renny Harlin)

A couple find themselves tormented by masked intruders…

IF (2024, dir. John Krasinski)

A young girl develops the ability to see people’s imaginary friends…

Hoard (2024, dir. Luna Carmoon)

A troubled teen begins a dysfunctional relationship with an older man…

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (2024, dir. Wes Ball)

Many years after the reign of Caesar, an ape-ruled kingdom comes under threat…

The Fall Guy (2024, dir. David Leitch)

A Hollywood stuntman winds up on an epic misadventure during his latest gig…

Tarot (2024, dirs. Spenser Cohen and Anna Halberg)

A group of teenagers find themselves haunted after messing with spiritual tarot cards…

The Idea of You (2024, dir. Michael Showalter)

A 40-year-old single mother begins a relationship with a much younger pop star…

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *