“Challengers” Exhilarating Intensity

I was certainly intrigued when I first heard about “Challengers”, especially because of Luca Guadagnino as director. But I was equally curious how Zendaya would do in a new project where she is in a more center stage role. After watching this film, I found it has an exhilarating intensity, fast paced with a palpable tension that is deliberately ratcheted up to create an explosive finale.

“Challengers” is a romantic sports film directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by Justin Kuritzkes. The film follows professional tennis champion Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) who is plotting a comeback with the help of his wife and coach, Tashi (Zendaya), a former tennis prodigy who retired after an injury. Tashi is a force of nature who makes no apologies for her game on and off the court. Tashi’s strategy for Art’s redemption takes a surprising turn when he must face up against the washed up Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), his former best friend and Tashi’s former lover. Will Tashi’s strategy work as their past and present collide? What will it cost to win?

One of the aspects I loved the most was the direction of this film. While the story is told in pieces, back and forth in time, that never detracts for the overall film. In fact, it adds to the tension, adding in layers of emotion and narrative that slowly reveals the manipulations of Tashi and her interactions with both Art and Patrick. Like a tennis match, the film deliberately moves in time to ratchet up the tension, both sexual and competitive, to create an explosive ending.

Another aspect of the writing is that it treats all of the characters as very human, with flaws and faults. Tashi begins as a joyful playfulness in coaching and challenging both Art and Patrick but eventually the need to control her own life leads her to be more manipulative and push Art. Art lacks the intensity that Tashi has but loves her enough to force himself to compete as he slowly loses the desire to win. Patrick, while arrogant and hating to lose, also cares about both Tashi and Art. None of them are flat or two dimensional and the way their characters are infused with emotion is what creates the exhilarating intensity both in the relationships and in the match between the two men. 

There is some fantastic filmography that enhances the feel of the competition and the physicality of the tennis match. Guadagnino chooses to use intense close ups during the game, focusing on each of the men that allows the viewer to see the event from their point of view. A storm raging outside the day and night before the match is an excellent metaphor for the chaos and tension surrounding the three as well as the passion simmering just below the surface between Tashi and Patrick. These are brilliant choices that create even more tension in the movie.

Given the focus on the relationship, it requires a chemistry between all three actors and there is a palpable sexual tension bubbling between all three. Zendaya is dynamic with a laser focus and a charisma that keeps the attention on her whenever she’s on screen. She is charming and forceful in her role as Tashi, yet infuses her character with emotion and grace. Mike Faist is quietly magnetic as Art. In the past, his character is more thoughtful and energetic and in the present, he portrays the bone deep exhaustion of an athlete ready to retire. Josh O’Connor embraces his bad boy role with cocky arrogance and intense drive. He portrays a man ready to fight to win. And between all three of them is a charged connection that the final match only deepens. All three actors delve into the intensity of the relationship and the ties between the characters.

The back and forth from the past to the present does keep the audience guessing as the secrets between the three are revealed but there are points where those secrets are predictable. Also while bouncing back and forth enhances the feel of a tension match, it has the potential to distract from the present or lose some of the audience. It is a long film and there are some slower moments. While some of those points do build the characters and the story, some of the length could have been pared back, including a couple locker scenes that were not completely necessary to the greater story.

If you like Luca Guadagnino as a director or you like romantic sports films, I do recommend this movie. It has an exhilarating intensity, crazy chemistry between Zendaya, Mike Faist, and Josh O’Connor with brilliant performances from all three. Zendaya is heart stoppingly charismatic and emotional in her performance. Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor are both powerful and dynamic in their portrayals. If you like films with an explosive ending, this is one that is off the charts incendiary. 

Rating: 4.5 rackets out of 5.

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