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  • Nate Adams

'Challengers' review: Luca Guadagino and Zendaya deliver a sexy grand slam



Courtesy of Amazon/MGM

 

Game. Set. Match. 


Director Luca Guadagino and screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes, combined with what is easily the best score of the year by composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, collide to deliver a sexy, sweltering, love affair, set within the world of professional tennis, that takes no prisoners and leaves it all on the court in “Challengers.” Guadagino, no stranger to turning up the romantic tension with his “Call Me By Your Name,” walks a tightrope of simmering proficiency. Peeling back the layers of three lovers vying and lusting after the other while contending with their own mental anguish. And lead star Zendaya serves up an ace of a performance playing the one at the center of it all in the performance of her career. 


Told across 13 years, “Challengers,” follows three young athletes as they begin their careers and follows them well into adulthood. We see the trials and tribulations of the pressure mounted on rising stars while also getting a deeper, methodical look into the competitive nature of what makes them tick and the pathways that ultimately lead towards salvation or destruction. Zendaya has never been better playing Tashi, who, when we first meet her as an 18-year-old tennis prodigy, she’s already signed a major endorsement deal with Adidas. She lives, eats, and breathes the sport, but her ambitions go beyond the scope of just hitting a ball with a racket. 


The same can’t be said for Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), who are both best friends and doubles partners with an eye for Tashi’s backhand. The first night the three meet, tensions are enormously high and the sneaky hotel rendezvous, which starts as a harmless hangout session that slowly teeters towards something more explicit, concludes with a steamy sequence where Guadagino is not afraid to let the camera be right in the middle of the action. Tashi knows what she’s doing by having the two friends, who have a complicated, competitive relationship with some very clear romantic undertones, eating out of the palm of her hand. The menacing smile she brandishes after the encounter says it all. 


This sequence sets the stage for the ensuing drama and quickly cuts into the modern day (of which the make-up and hair department deserve major credit for making the trio look entirely believable as both college kids and adults) where Tashi and Art are married, with the former serving as Art’s head coach after suffering a career ending injury. It’s been a long time since anyone has seen a movie that seamlessly blends time this efficiently. It might take a moment to adjust, but once it settles in. Buckle up. 


In the latter years, Art has made a lucrative career out of being a tennis player while Patrick has been coasting on fumes trying to keep the dream of playing the game alive. What was once a friendly rivalry has turned into something a shade darker and more manipulative; and Guadagino enjoys tinkering with those relationship dynamics, often switching back and forth from “13 years later” to “13 years before” and providing juicy context while also intercutting a climatic tennis match, that’s staged with a Herculan can’t-look-away energy, throughout the movie, to keep us on our toes. This movie slows down for nobody. So make sure to stay on its wavelength. 


It’s all elevated, of course, by the most inspired soundtrack of the year by Reznor and Ross who imbued the film with a bass heavy synthesizer rhythm that seems plucked from the nineties. And I mean that in the best way possible. With all these elements, and Guadagino putting the camera all over the place, sometimes from the perspective of the literal tennis ball, to the sweaty, shaky closeups of the three stars in the heat of battle, “Challengers” is of a rare cinematic breed. It’s got a sensual, youthful energy shouldered by Zendaya, Faist and O’Connor who have now seen their stock considerably raised. They own every second of this staggering drama that never takes its eyes off the target. Bring a towel. 


Grade: A- 


CHALLENGERS opens in theaters Friday, April 26th.


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