FILM REVIEW — Steamy “Challengers” scores with strong acting

Published 12:04 am Friday, April 26, 2024

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Pascal Pictures

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Starring Zemdaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist

Rated R

3 Stars

Italian director Luca Guadagnino has never been one to shy away from strong sexual content in his movies, but his latest film, “Challengers,” may be his steamiest yet.

That’s because while this is ostensibly a sports flick, the real appeal of this movie is the love triangle between characters played by Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist and especially Zendaya.

“Challengers” pops around in time, focusing on this trio of tennis players when they were young, horny and ambitious before catching up with them thirteen years later when they have been buffeted around by life.

Art (Faist) and Patrick (O’Connor) start out as friends and professional tennis rivals whose careers take dramatic turns upon the arrival of Tashi (Zendaya), the driven young player who captures the hearts (and loins) of both men.

Tashi’s career is cut short after an injury, so she turns her attention to coaching/marrying Art. Under her direction, he becomes very successful, while Patrick’s career takes a nosedive.

Things come to a head when the two former best friends face off on the court in the later stage of this story. It may be a tennis match, but it’s really a battle about power dynamics, personal ambition, their feelings for Tashi, as well as the feelings for each other.

Okay, that’s the tennis side of the story, but the thing that will have most audiences talking will be the steamy 3-way scene in which Tashi uses her power over the two men to force them to explore their homoerotic desires. Given the obvious attractiveness of the three actors, this scene lives up to its hype.

It’s rather refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t shy away from sexual content, especially when it’s shot this well.

That scene may draw audiences in, but it’s the performances that elevate “Challengers” into something special. Tashi is a force of nature, dominating every scene, while poor Art is the guy who wins the girl, but is nonetheless struggling to survive.

And while Patrick may appear to be something of a loser, his cock-sure attitude keeps him in the game. All three of these performances are superb and they are what turn the film into something special.

I’m also an enthusiastic fan of the screenplay, which crackles with zingy one-liners, as well as the production design/cinematography, which presents the sports competition using unique angles and inspired editing.

A lesser director would have simply relied on his cast, but Guadagnino gives us a production that lives up to the standard set by the performers.

It’s not all great. The film is a little bloated, running well past the two-hour mark. The tennis sequences, while nicely shot, don’t actually show us much of the action. And then there’s the synth-pop-techno score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, that makes the movie feel like it’s set in a dance club instead of on the tennis court.

It adds propulsive energy, but also makes it difficult to hear what’s going on at times.

In the end, the movie ends up being a mixed bag. It certainly has its problems, but the screenplay, interesting storytelling techniques and especially the central performances make “Challengers” into a thoroughly entertaining, and yes, decidedly steamy, sports melodrama.

Movie reviews by Sean McBride, “The Movie Guy,” are published each week by Orange Newsmedia. Sean welcomes your comments via email at