Movies · Reviews

‘Challengers’ Is the Year’s Most Electrifying, Thrilling, and Sexy Experience

Great movies for adults are back, baby!
By  · Published on April 12th, 2024

History has taught us not to expect too much from movies about the world of tennis. There really haven’t been all that many of them, and most are documentaries, meaning we’re left with a small mix of comedies (Wimbledon, 2004) and biopics (King Richard, 2021) to choose from. There’s arguably only been one unforgettable gem among them (Borg vs McEnroe, 2018), but that’s about to change with the release of Luca Guadagnino‘s latest feature, Challengers. Tennis movies, hell, sports movies in general, shouldn’t be this goddamn electric and horny, but Challengers tosses the ball in the air and expectations out the window to deliver a film that absolutely crackles with tension, excitement, fun, emotion, and thrills — both on and off the court.

Three young tennis players meet on the road to professional careers, but injury, deception, ambition, love, and lust might be their ultimate destinations. We first meet Art (Mike Faist), Patrick (Josh O’Connor), and Tashi (Zendaya) as the two men come together for a low-level championship match. Art is a top ranked player, and Tashi is his manager, but it’s clear both have history with the ragged wild card, Patrick. The match unfolds in the present, but flashbacks reveal how the three briefly became one, the lies that split them apart, and the loves that brought them together.

A plot synopsis for Challengers sounds so basic on the page, but Guadagnino’s film is anything but. From the very first minutes, the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross lifts you out of your seat with energetic synth sounds that’ll have you cheering before you even know who you’re rooting for. The film is alive and breathing from the very start, and it keeps you levitating for the entirety of its running time as you ride the attitude, fun, and sexuality exuding from every sweaty frame. That it does all that while still delivering a fantastically insightful look at the sport and the drive needed to excel is nothing short of miraculous. The film’s about tennis even when we’re off the court, about human nature even when we’re on, and it is an utterly magical experience.

There’s not a false note to be found in Challengers, and that starts with a director playing with elements frequently found in his work but combining them in freshly exciting new ways. Relationships injected with emotion and sensuality, visuals that are immensely pleasurable to the eye, an appreciation for sexually charged interactions both sincere and sophomoric. Guadagnino’s latest smashes drama, romance, comedy, and sports into a deliriously compelling concoction that takes hold of your bones and keeps stroking until your soul leaves your body, returns thirsty for more, and then rises up all over again.

And speaking of bodies, Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom find the sexy goods at every turn, whether in sequences genuinely aiming for provocative thrills or with shots that simply demand you pay attention. Zendaya’s long legs occupy the frame as if she’s a graceful but deadly kaiju surveying the populace for her next meal, and the men are equally, lovingly scrutinized as muscles stretch, body hair glistens, and sweat pours off the screen like we’re in the front row for Duran Duran’s “The Reflex.” Conversations see the camera whip back and forth between characters as if engaged in a verbal tennis match, and even moments without movement feel as if they’re ready to burst. Scenes on the court are captured from all angles, rarely with a static eye, and sometimes our POV as the ball itself works to capture the dramatic beats pulsating between every shot, every exchange, and every breath. Marco Costa‘s editing is another vital ingredient in a film whose heartbeat is constantly on the rise and that will leave you spent, exhilarated, and ready to watch again.

Challengers is an undeniable treat for the senses, but it’s also a showcase for its actors. Faist and O’Connor play best friends with an intensity that teases something more, and they find the human truths in pathetic characters who frequently cross a line into unlikable territory. There’s a give and take between them, a musky air of “will they or won’t they?” that allows an exploration of male relationships we rarely see on the big screen. They also have highly punchable faces, both the actors and their characters, meaning viewers are equally guilty of desiring a physical interaction.

It’s Zendaya, though, who absolutely takes charge of it all, with a performance that would be labeled a star-making turn if she wasn’t already one. She channels Tashi’s focus, from an ambitious teenager to a frustrated adult, and turns it into a performance you won’t be able to shake. Each of the guys believe they’re in charge, but this is Tashi’s world that they’re just visiting. Zendaya’s portrayal of a woman who’s simultaneously in control and out of bounds mesmerizes like nothing she’s done previously, and she turns cruelties both subtle and bold into character traits not faults. Forget the clumsy misfire that is Malcolm & Marie (2021) — I know, everyone already has — because Challengers is Zendaya’s true coming out as an actor capable of capturing the numerous complexities of a smart, sexy, and selfish adult who’s as seductively imperfect as they come.

As serious as many of the themes and transgressions are in Challengers, its comedic aspect is every bit as present. There’s fun in the interactions and exchanges, often a darkly humorous fun, but fun all the same. Guys hang dong, they act like pricks, and Tashi fits right in with some dickish antics of her own as moments careen from the dramatic to the devious to the downright unforgettable. Nervous laughter is equally present as characters betray each other or get one up on the other, but you can’t stop loving these assholes no matter what they do as their ambition, charm, and vitality forces you along for the ride. They want to fuck — with each other, with each other’s heads, with viewers — and in the immortal words of Ken Watanabe in 2014’s Godzilla, let them fuck.

It’s a matter of filmmaking brilliance, a concoction where every ingredient and every step in the recipe makes the whole that much more delicious and aromatic. The tennis match framing device that everything else builds towards is incredibly suspenseful, almost to the point that you’re as tense and sweaty as the players themselves, and like too few sports films, it’ll have you cheering for both sides to “win,” even as the concept itself morphs into something the scoreboard simply can’t handle. Challengers is the real deal, a film that’s as honest and insightful as it is pleasingly exhausting. You’ll leave the theater smiling, satisfied, and wet head to toe, and that, my friends, is a great time at the movies.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.