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An engrossing, sexy tale, directed with flair and boasting a trio of sublime performances: Challengers has it all, which makes the film’s showboating, blunt finale all the more frustrating.

Challengers covers 13 years in the lives of three romantically and professionally intertangled tennis players, jumping back and forth between past and present, with a suspenseful tennis match between the two male protagonists as its dynamically staged centrepiece. The result could easily have become an overwrought metaphor for messy relationships and faltering ambitions but Luca Guadagnino makes it into compulsory viewing.

A lot of that is due to the spot-on casting of the leading threesome. Mike Faist justifies all the promise he showed in West Side Story as a calculated, successful athlete and finds a perfect counterpoint in Josh O’Connor’s brash, talented but underperforming rival, both on the court and in matters of the heart. Their homoerotic dynamic burns up the screen.

Caught between the two is Zendaya, making up for her own failed, injury-stricken career by channelling her ambitions through Faist’s character. The actress has shown flashes of brilliance before but Zendaya was never better served by a nuanced, ambiguous screenplay than she is here.

Luca Guadagnino plays up the tension with brazen direction and snappy editing, making sure Challengers never loses pace and continuously builds towards a heart-racing crescendo. He is helped by a superb soundtrack that infectiously channels the pumping disco beats of Giorgio Moroder.

When that finale comes, Challengers pulls out all the stops, yet for all the flashy shots, taut editing and showboating, slow-motion acting the denouement – especially the final minute – is so silly it borders on the laughable, so you can’t help but feel the rug is being pulled out from under you.

release: 2024

director: Luca Guadagnino

starring: Zendaya, Mike Faist, Josh O'Connor


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