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Challengers Review: Game, Sex & A Near-Perfect Match

EDITORS' RATING : 7 / 10
Pros
  • Mesmerizing performances from lead trio
  • Erotic narrative that blends tennis and sex
Cons
  • Too many flashbacks become convoluted
  • Tennis action shots can be nausea-inducing

Can we interest you in three beautiful people playing tennis and mind games with one another? That's pretty much what "Challengers" has on offer, not so much a sports movie as it is a tawdry three-way — and we mean that in the best possible way. We've been waiting what feels like forever for this film to come out after it was delayed last fall in the wake of the Hollywood strikes. And for the most part, it was worth the wait. Where it succeeds, it does so on the strength of its three central performances: Zendaya is magnetic, Josh O'Connor has a devil-may-care charm, and Mike Faist shines in the film's most emotionally restrained role. If things fall apart a little bit in the third act, it's still a fun and sexy ride along the way.

Art (Faist) and Patrick (O'Connor) are old friends, having grown up together at a prestigious boarding school for tennis players. On the verge of going pro, they have the potential to make big names for themselves in the world of tennis. But neither of them can hold a candle to Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), an 18-year-old phenom who captivates audiences on and off the court. She immediately entrances them, and for the next few decades, the three are caught up in a tenuous, toxic love triangle that will define both their personal and professional lives.

"Challengers" flits between their youth as rising tennis stars and the present day, where Tashi and Art are a married power couple, with Tashi managing Art's career as he recovers from a severe shoulder injury. After Art loses several key matches, Tashi decides to motivate (and possibly humiliate) Art by signing him up for a lower-level competition in New Rochelle that he's sure to win and regain his confidence. Where does Patrick fit into this? Well, he can't stay away from either of them for long.

Tennis as sex

Director Luca Guadagnino makes it astoundingly clear that in "Challengers," tennis is always a metaphor for sex. It's not subtle, but it is effective. The relationships between Art, Patrick, and Tashi are all tied up in tennis — Tashi in particular is incapable of being emotionally or sexually engaged with a partner without tennis somehow in the mix. Is she capable of truly loving someone, or is the extent of her emotional connection limited to how much she respects them as a competitor or feels capable of molding them in her own image? Her love is inherently destructive — she wants someone like Art in part because she's in a position to control his career and live vicariously through him, but she also resents him for his lack of agency, his willingness to be so easily led. 

Art and Patrick, similarly, run hot and cold with each other. They almost exclusively play out their considerable sexual tension on the court, as they anticipate each other's movements, Art's grunts as he hits the ball coming across more like high-pitched moans. Like we said, it's not subtle. But it's because of this that "Challengers" becomes a seductively sensual battle of wills much more than it is a traditional sports drama.

Fumbling the third act

That said, it's not without its flaws. Tashi critiques Patrick at one point, saying that he always fumbles his matches toward the end because he thinks that he's won before he actually has. In a way, "Challengers" does the same thing. The spark of the first act fizzles away as Luca Guadagnino puts in a few too many convoluted flashbacks and time jumps that kill its momentum.

"Challengers" experiments with narrative structure in a way that is disorienting and even irritating. Hopping between the past and the present and the five years ago and two days ago becomes a little exhausting after a while. It doesn't increase the narrative tension the way that they were probably hoping it would. There are some moments that genuinely benefit from this choice to crisscross throughout time, but just as many where it begins to lose the thread. Guadagnino also has a tendency to get a little cutesy with his camera techniques during the climactic tennis match between Art and Patrick. Do we really need POV shots of the tennis ball as it flies over the net, requiring viewers to pop a Dramamine to make it through the scene? Probably not. It's a shame, because the character and relationship dynamics are a lot of fun to watch play out.

Flaws aside, "Challengers" is a steamy little romp that is sure to entertain and titillate in equal measure. Zendaya, Josh O'Connor, and Mike Faist are clearly having fun with the material, playing off one another in a way that makes it clear exactly how talented they are. Could their combined powers be enough to revitalize the sadly defunct erotic thriller genre? Only time will tell. But based on their performances here, they definitely have it in them.

"Challengers" premieres in theaters on April 26.