Is ‘Challengers’ This Generation’s ‘Bull Durham?’

Zendaya leads wobbly love triangle saved by director's signature verve

Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers” is a tawdry, repetitive, sports-driven relationship drama elevated and almost saved entirely by robust filmmaking.

Take it either as “Bull Durham” (1988) but set in the world of tennis, or simply “Dangerous Liaisons” (also 1988) but with the gender of the three leads reversed.

CHALLENGERS | Final Trailer

We meet Tashi, played by Zendaya, a competitive tennis player who is far smarter than her age would indicate. Tashi becomes the object of affection and an all-or-nothing competition between two lifelong friends and tennis players, the highly competitive Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and the sweet but controllable Art Donaldson (Mike Faist).

The story jumps forwards and backward dozens of times, with potential confusion avoided by timecards rendering the dates clear. However, it’s Zendaya’s contrasting hairstyles that ultimately keep things coherent.

Tennis matches and switching romantic partners between the three leads is how the story moves in rotation. Unlike the aforementioned “Bull Durham,” which also revolved around a love triangle and explicitly compared the rules of baseball to sex, “Challengers” actually has no sex scenes (only moments of graphic nudity and a three-way kiss that is in the trailer).

There is an eroticism to this that can only be taken somewhat seriously, as Guadagnino is never subtle.

It’s suggested a few times but never actually explored that Patrick and Art are sexually attracted to one another but have been holding it back for decades. Rather than developing this, Guadagnino gives them a literally steamy sauna room conversation and another scene where they munch on phallic churros while making eyes at one another.

“Challengers” has this in common with the tacky cult classic “Cruel Intentions” (1999): it wants to jolt the mainstream but is limited to occasionally shocking its audience without following through on provocative promises.


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The three leads are appealing but give limited performances.

It’s too early to tell if the one-note natures of the characters, the range of the actors or both are to blame but, if Zendaya, O’Connor and Faist become important actors after this, it would be a pleasant surprise. The three ably invest in their roles but no one steps up and carries the film.

Zendaya’s Tashi not only drives the story but is the sports guru/sex object at the center of the triangle, the way Susan Sarandon’s Annie Savoy was crucial to “Bull Durham.” “Challengers” lacks that film’s humor and true character growth.

There are three major contributors here who make the film worth seeing – two are the composers, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose club banger of a score sounds like an extension of their thrilling “Nun with a Mother-Bleeping Gun” track from the “Watchmen” HBO series.

The music is dynamic and exciting, as well as used in a knowing, unusual manner. You expect the throbbing beats during the electric tennis matches but, when Guadagnino has the score play during the high-stakes conversations between the leads, we understand that those verbal altercations are every bit a competition as the actual tournaments.

The other major contributor is obviously Guadagnino, who takes an engaging but obvious and not altogether radical melodrama (teen athletes struggling to embrace adulthood!) into a tour de force. There are no scenes that embrace a light touch – for example, a character’s main change of heart is revealed during a windstorm.

As in Guadagnino’s best films, the surprising “A Bigger Splash” (2015) and the hypnotic, horrifying “Suspiria” (2018), the style is the substance. The showmanship of Guadagnino goes beyond the tennis matches, which are easily the most exciting to be put on film.

The engaging but forgettable “Wimbledon” (2004) is probably the last time tennis was the focal point of a sports movie. Come to think of it, the last time a tennis match connected in a movie on this level was probably “The Witches of Eastwick” (1987)!

There’s a Hitchcockian quality to the filmmaking, which takes an obvious cue from “Strangers on a Train” (1951), which is also about a tennis player; Guadagnino mimics the famous shot of spectators’ heads going back and forth with the tennis ball.

Yet, the two-men dynamic, even the suggested possibility of sexual attraction between them, is also in Hitchcock’s film. “Challengers” isn’t a thriller but would make an interesting double feature with “Strangers on a Train.”

Guadagnino overreaches with the 131-minute running time. I like a long, fully-formed movie but this easily could and should have been 10 minutes shorter.

CHALLENGERS | Out On A Limb – Featurette

Like John Cassavetes, Guadagnino likes scenes to stretch beyond the expected before or after they begin. I like the shots of the athletes preparing mentally before their matches, but there are some static bits here that are frustrating in their overextension.

Yet, there’s a welcome second-act surprise that breaks the cyclical nature of the story. Guadagnino somehow makes a date to Applebee’s seem romantic and crucial. Then there’s the grand finale which, like everything else here, goes on far too long but is still exhilarating.

After the disappointment of Guadagnino’s irritating and oddly predictable cannibal love story “Bones and All” (2022), it’s good to see him back with a full throttle, propulsive work of cinema. Time will tell if this becomes the definitive tennis movie (I prefer “Match Point” slightly more, even though it lacks the enthralling tennis sequences of “Challengers”).

As is, it shows what happens when a wily, talented film artist takes juvenile material and turns it into a powerhouse.

Three Stars


  1. Ick. Too Woke. Womanizing is bad, but “manizing” is OK? We get it…Girl Boss…Hear Me Roar…Fierce…powerful…blah blah blah…

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