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Challengers review: Zendaya is at her gimlet-eyed best in this stonking tennis entertainment

This is an exercise in sustained, mid-level erotic tension: sex is everywhere and nowhere

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Director: Luca Guadagnino
Cert: 15A
Starring: Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist
Running Time: 2 hrs 11 mins

The latest film from Luca Guadagnino, perpetrator of lavish excesses such as A Bigger Splash and Call Me by Your Name, has already achieved one pocket miracle: it had this reviewer briefly yearning for the return of 3-D. There are endless pleasures to be prised from this saucy tale of rivalry on the professional tennis circuit, but nothing here is more exciting than Zendaya walloping balls down the barrel of the camera to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s house-adjacent beats.

Even without that discredited process, viewers will find themselves ducking to avoid concussion. Though all the usual experts have been consulted, the action looks no more like a real match than the fights in Rocky looked like real boxing. This is cartoon tennis of the spiciest order and no less thrilling for its lack of interest in hard verisimilitude.

Not that everyone will arrive with that as their top priority. Pulled from its opening slot at last year’s Venice International Film Festival when the actors went on strike, Challengers has already set too many salivary glands pumping in anticipation of trailed troilism involving our era’s buzziest young stars. Anyone so intrigued should take a breath. Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist’s characters do indeed get it on in the early sections, but, as is often Guadagnino’s way, the sex is more sublimated than sensationalised. That sequence is closer to boarding-school experimentation than full-on orgy. Challengers is an exercise in sustained, mid-level erotic tension. Sex is everywhere and nowhere.

The screenplay from Justin Kuritzkes – husband of Celine Song, director of Past Lives – zips backwards and forwards through time, but we do have a stable “present” at a low-ranking tournament in New Rochelle, New York. The apparently destitute Patrick Zweig (O’Connor) trundles up in a banjaxed car and tries to talk motel staff into an unconventional deferred payment. Repulsed, he beds down in his vehicle and ponders organising hook-ups on a phone with a shattered screen (sound 21st-century shorthand for limited liquidity). The next day, grafting for an advance on prize money, he realises that Art Donaldson (Faist), an estranged pal who is now a top-ranking player, is slumming it in the same tournament. That means Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), Donaldson’s wife and manager, is also circling the courts.


Flashback to Faist and O’Connor convincingly playing teenage versions of the characters as they catch their first sight of Tashi, also a strong player, when competing in a junior event. There is, appropriately enough for a tennis movie, a good deal of back and forth. Patrick seems to be winning Tashi over. Later she has a horrific injury that ends her career and she finds herself the power behind Art’s throne.

Profiles of Zendaya too often fall into the trap of “America’s sweetheart” prose. She may well be that, but, onscreen, it is her capacity for gimlet-eyed determination that really sets her apart. What we have here is a spirited rehearsal for her first Lady Macbeth, with both men playing different shades of the Thane’s psyche. We are never quite sure if Art and Patrick see tennis as a substitute for sex or sex as a substitute for tennis. Denied her own opportunity on the court, Tashi exhibits no such doubts, and if Art won’t be her proxy then Patrick will have to do. That mess of motivations sharpens in a terrific late storm scene that turns the Shakespearean parallel into a little less of an overreach.

The boys’ interests are ultimately a tad less engaging – everyone prefers Lady Macbeth to her useless husband – and their final moments of unlikely resolution don’t quite convince. But this remains a ... No, we won’t fall back on a tennis reference. Others will do that for you. A real stonker of an entertainment.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist