‘Challengers’ Review: Rivals’ Advantage Set

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Challengers, a romantic sports drama that delivers on its melodramatic story by way of fun levels of tension, some kinetic visuals, and a killer score.
User Rating: 8

It’s strange to praise some movies for simply succeeding at being movies, but Challengers accomplishes this in the old-fashioned sense of that line of thinking. The film is a romantic sports drama that’s highly engaging thanks to the flashiness of the filmmaking, a spectacular score, and, of course, the charisma of the three leads at the center, locked in a love triangle. Not to say there’s nothing special about this sort of movie, but as an adult-skewing, non-fantastical drama that’s banking on movie star energy as its way to be sold to audiences, it’s great to just have fun with a movie like this. And, not for nothing, finding ways to expand a single tennis game into a thrilling, all-encompassing event also earns this film plenty of credit.

Challengers’ story is told in a non-linear format. The gist of it comes down to two pretty good tennis players, Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), being enamored with Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), a tennis prodigy on the verge of becoming a megastar. All three are interested in each other, and while things appear to be going Patrick’s way at first, a career-ending injury leads to Tashi and Art becoming a couple and eventually marrying, with Tashi serving as her husband’s coach. The present-day follows an unexpected match between the former best friends, while constant flashbacks build a context around how this trio has interacted over the years, with various revelations making it clear to these players just how fiery their situation really is.

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The film is written by Justin Kuritzkes, who happens to be married to Celine Song, the director of 2023’s Oscar-nominated Past Lives, another film that had a curious study of a romantic situation shared between three people – a woman, her husband, and her childhood friend. While that is a much quieter film compared to Challengers, it’s interesting to see both films’ ways of examining the dynamics between past and current affections, exploring where desires can lead, and exhibiting the tensions on display when each party is within close proximity of each other. With that in mind, Challengers is far more willing to put extremes on display, even as a film that chooses never to truly show any more than it must (the varying forms of tension shared between each performer do more than any overt display of intimacy would amount to).

Those choices feel like a proper challenge for director Luca Guadagnino, who has been on a solid streak of delivering very European films featuring Hollywood stars, be it the psychological drama found in A Bigger Splash, the coming-of-age story seen in Call Me by Your Name, the supernatural horror put on display in his Suspiria remake, or the unsettling and offbeat romance depicted in Bones and All. While certainly definable in terms of genre, he relies on deep emotion and visuals to convey a lot in his features. Challengers, by comparison, is a much busier film, designed to a broader appeal for audiences. Still, it doesn’t take away from the specific moments Guadagnino wants to capture between these characters.

Fortunately, we receive good results from this cast all-around. Except for Malcolm & Marie, which seemed like more of an experiment she could work on with director Sam Levinson as a step outside the zone they’ve created with her award-winning work on Euphoria, Zendaya hasn’t really had much opportunity to star in a cinematic drama not attached to some IP. Fittingly, this film also provides a challenge for her, as Tashi must work in numerous capacities that keep her two suitors and the audience intrigued by her intentions.

At the same time, we also have to sympathize with her unrealized potential and believe in the various choices she makes to ideally benefit her overall cause. I’m not sure she’s fully equipped or that the film can adequately display all facets needed when it comes to the older version of her character, but she at least has the right sort of chemistry to work with the other two.

As far as that duo goes, both are terrific in playing into their established personas. While there’s complexity here, it’s easy to boil O’Connor’s Patrick down to being the bad boy of the two, with more edge and a more volatile nature. On the other hand, Faist’s Art is a more traditional type who follows the rules and likes to be agreeable. As best friends, these two play well together. When pushed into being rivals, they still play very well together.

While the romantic angles taking place with Tashi and these two provide the thrust of the plot, it’s not hard to see what sort of pent-up pressure there is between the two of these guys as well. That’s no surprise, as the film uses visual symmetry and other aspects to clearly tie them together comfortably. Seeing how both evolve over time in terms of their performance and our perception of them only adds to what they are bringing as a whole.

From a production standpoint, plenty of electricity is in the air throughout this film. Whether on the court, in a hotel room, or within a hotel lobby, Guadagnino and his team work to make every scene cinematically interesting in some way. Camera movements, sound design, and other choices make sure to set an advantage for one of the participating parties at a given moment, increasing the inherent thrills that can emerge from a romantic melodrama having as much fun as this one. As one expects, the pulsating score from Oscar-winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross add tremendously to all of this, let alone provide me with music I’ll be happy to write reviews like this to for the rest of the year.

When it comes to the tennis of it all, this film easily shines. While one long game keeps us occupied with a dramatic rendition of the sport, this film has other matches shown at different times for varying reasons that never let up in excitement. There’s tension in knowing the consequences in some of these matches, while others are just enjoyable to see on display. Plus, along with the inherent exhilaration that comes from watching the ball go back and forth between opponents, Challengers has some flashy excess to show off in the form of BPOV (Ball Point of View), which adds some dizzying stakes to the proceedings.

Stylish without overdoing it, well-performed without feeling as though it’s pining for awards, the thrill of a film like this, with sports baked so well into the narrative, means finding much to appreciate on and off the court. Challengers gets a lot out of its stars and presentation, with some sharp writing to boot, making for an appealing drama that never takes its eye off the ball.

Challengers opens in theaters on April 26, 2024.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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