Challengers (2024) Review: More Fizzle than Sizzle in This Otherwise Visually Stylish Sports Drama

I hate to say this but Challengers has to be the most overhyped movie of the year so far. Watching the movie makes me feel like a tennis ball volleying and bouncing across the court but the game just goes on and on. Luca Guadagnino, whose cannibalistic romantic horror Bones and All made it into my list as one of the best movies in 2022, surprisingly fizzles in his so-called sexy attempt to combine tennis and three-way romance.

Working from a debut screenplay by Justin Kuritzkes, Guadagnino chose to tell the story in a non-linear structure while utilising the time-jump narrative that goes back and forth, mimicking the style and feel of an unpredictable tennis match. The match itself also addressed the whirlwind love triangle between former tennis prodigy-turned-coach Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) and two competing tennis players, Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist). The latter two are childhood friends and the first time they lay their eyes on Tashi while attending a match, they are determined to win her over. We also learn that during one of the earlier timelines, Tashi’s promising tennis career is abruptly cut short when she lands awkwardly during a match that severely injured one of her knees.

The story spans 13 years between 2006 and 2019 and to avoid confusion, each time jump has its text appeared on the screen (e.g. “twelve years earlier”). On paper, it looks interesting but the execution tells a different story. For all the massive hype surrounding this movie, I find the overall story… strangely hollow. Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist are all good-looking people but there is surprisingly little sizzle between their love triangle. The much-publicised threesome sequence is more of an empty promise. The word “sexy” has been used a lot when comes to praising this movie but the level of sex and intimacy is rather tame by an erotic movie standard.

Josh O'Connor in "Challengers" (2024)

One of the biggest problems in Challengers has to do with Zendaya’s character. She tries her best to play a hard-to-get kind of role but is ultimately defeated by vague storytelling that fails to give her a worthy character arc. Her Tashi character is more of a cypher and her background is mostly restricted to an ambitious and young tennis player, whose career was marred by an injury. I kept asking myself: What makes Tashi such a prized trophy other than the two young men finding her hot and attractive?

Sure, there are conflicts and all but none of the subtlety except for rendering them ambiguous, especially during the final third act seemingly goes on forever. It is meant to be an open debate regarding the fate of their relationship but I barely care with all the increasing pretension of the movie’s overlong, yet patience-testing 131-minute runtime. The over-emphasis on the dreaded slow-motion and I mean, slow with a capital “S” occurring during the final match between Patrick and Art with Tashi as a spectator, gets on my nerves. It’s frustrating to watch and I have to say, cheesy too.

Guadagnino once again worked with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross after Bones and All, resulting in a techno-heavy soundscape with a pulsating rhythm that complements well with the tennis match sequences. Visually, Challengers is a first-rate technical triumph with Guadagnino finding creative ways to shoot the tennis matches with a sense of visual intimacy. From close-ups of the player’s sweat trickling on the forehead to the POV shots of a tennis ball being hit back and forth, if only the three-way romance is as passionate as these matches, it would be another winner for the director. Frankly, I wanted to like this movie as much as most critics did but too bad the overall movie is akin to a half-baked match that is all style but little substance.

Challengers is now available on VOD, just three weeks after the movie debuted and still playing in cinemas. At the time of writing, the movie has so far collected over US$71 million worldwide against its reportedly US$55 million budget.