Producers: Amy Pascal, Luca Guadagnino, Zendaya and Rachel O’Connor   Director: Luca Guadagnino Screenplay: Justin Kuritzkes   Cast: Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist, Darnell Appling, AJ Lister, Nada Despotovich, Naheem Garcia, Hailey Gates and Jake Jensen   Distributor: Amazon MGM Studio

Grade B+

Director Luca Guadagnino has never been stingy in supplying his films with sexual passion and cinematic extravagance, but he outdoes himself in this tale of three tennis stars for whom love means more than a score in the game. 

Or perhaps lust is the better word, because their triangular relationship begins in 2006 when all of them are still in their late teens.  Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) are horny, carefree guys who’ve become a doubles team at a tennis academy.  At a meet they’re simultaneously awed by the court ability of prodigy Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), who’s on her way to Stanford, and keen to get her to come on to them (or at least one of them).    

At a lawn party after the meet they invite Tashi to the room they’re sharing, and that night she shows up.  She cannily takes charge of the situation, sensing the unspoken, undoubtedly unconscious, homoerotic element in their bond, by remarking that she doesn’t intend to be a homewrecker; and sitting between them on the bed, she shares steamy kisses with both before encouraging them to kiss one another.  Then she leaves, and they decide to play a match against one another to decide which of them will win the chance to romance her.

Cutting to the chase, it’s randy bad-boy Patrick who takes the prize, and he and Tashi become a sizzling twosome.  But nice guy Art is always in the background, commiserating with Tashi, especially after she suffers a career-ending knee injury.  And it’s they who eventually marry and have a child, sweet Lily (Lily Donaldson).  They’re a couple professionally as well, as the sidelined Tashi becomes Art’s coach.

Jump ahead thirteen years and Art has had a strong pro career.  But recently he’s been floundering: he’s lost his killer edge, and his chance of completing the Grand Slam by winning the US Open is becoming less and less likely.  Though he hasn’t told his wife, he’s even thinking seriously of retirement. 

Meanwhile she comes up with an idea to prepare him for the Open: she convinces him to sign up for a ATP Challenger event in New York where he can regain his confidence by trouncing players struggling to improve their ranking and earn a place in the ATP Tour.  What neither knows is that Patrick, whose career never took off and is now living out of his car and scrounging for entrance fees, is also among the players.  Naturally the final round will come down to him against Art, the eternal adolescent and the mature, world-weary adult, with Tashi watching intently from the center of the crowd.  The match mirrors the one the two men had over her more than a decade earlier, since Patrick still wants Tashi for himself and aims to be victorious both on and off the court, and she, in spite of her better judgment, can’t deny her feelings toward him.  

That 2019 contest, in fact, is where “Challengers” begins, and flashes of it recur throughout the film to the very end, as Guadagnino, writer Justin Kuritzkes and editor Marco Costa present the tale of the threesome not in straightforward chronological terms but as an intricate puzzle in which past and present shift and collide like volleys in a hard-fought march.  The stylistic strategy invests the narrative with a blistering nervous energy that keeps you engrossed and exhilarated despite the fact that the plot is actually quite simple, even borderline silly.

But it’s not merely the complex structure that gives the film such propulsive power.  Guadagnino, Costa, cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and the effects team led by Brian Drewes give the court action amazing visual pizzazz, fashioning some shots from the ball’s point of view or having the sphere rush directly toward the camera like a guided missile.  The result is both startling and invigorating, exponentially enhancing the level of tension the matches—especially the Challenge final—already possess.  (The intermittent interventions of the New Rochelle umpire played as preternaturally calm by Darnell Appling only amps up the impact each time the increasingly contentious play resumes.)  And the pulsing techno-flavored score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross further adds to the kinetic charge.

Even more integral to the film’s smashing success are the three stars, who bring almost fanatical intensity to their characters.  All excel in the physical department, not only convincing us of their skill on the court but managing to persuade us of the various ages they’re playing at different points in the story.  O’Connor and Faist actually come across as gangly, rowdy, hormone-driven teens in the chronologically earliest portions of the tale; and in the 2019 sequences they’re equally compelling, though in different ways, with O’Connor a perfect portrait of the over-the-hill striver still confident of his macho allure and Faist the very image of the champion trying to retain his poise through no longer sure of his athletic prowess, or of his wife’s fidelity.  Zendaya proves her star quality by differentiating the young Tashi’s supremely seductive yet knowing persona from her later, colder but no less perceptive one.  Jonathan Anderson assists them all with costumes that suit their characters at the varied stages of their lives, with Patrick’s scruffy court garb compared to Art’s designer outfits a notable touch.

There’s an emotional ferocity to “Challengers” that’s more than a little overheated, even slightly ridiculous, in its operatic flamboyance.  But better that than the blandness someone other than Guadagnino might have served up.