Director: Luca Guadagnino Screenwriter: Justin Kuritzkes Cast: Zendaya, Josh O'Connor, Mike Faist Distributor: Amazon MGM Studios Running Time: 131 min. MPAA: R

Challengers is a film that is horny for tennis in more ways than one. It has a throbbing heart that seems to thump with an overpowering soundtrack that overtakes the dialogue. There’s a thirsty drive for something bigger and competition heats up in battles of tennis and sex. As the battle continues, it’s not about who wins the match, but who is manipulating who in this complex love traingle of shifting power dynamics.

Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) is established a tennis player who has made the sport her life. She becomes so transfixed on the game that she views every match as a form of dominance, as though the batting of the balls gives her the ultimate high. So when she becomes the target of the horny tennis duo Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), she views this as a chance to manipulate them into performing at their best. While they’re thinking about sex, she’s thinking about tennis, even going so far as to clarify her subtext when asked.

Zendaya’s performance is key to making this turbulent love triangle work. She exists as a seductress who favors heating up the boys and watching where they go. Despite her admittance of not wanting to be a homewrecker, she ends up doing just that. The boys become her toys as she winds them up, making them fight for her when they’re clearly into each other. This becomes clear in a highly manipulative early scene of sexual teasing where she manages to transform a threesome into a make-out session between Patrick and Art. She views tennis itself as a relationship and can clearly see the connecting wire between these guys, more interested in strengthening the wire than reeling it in.

The nonlinear storytelling is fantastic in how the film bats between the developing relationships of college and the feud in the present. As a college player, Patrick is a bold and eccentric dude quick enough that it seems like he’ll end up winning the heart of Tashi. Years later, however, Patrick ends up poor and desperate to get back in the tennis spotlight. Art also develops in a different way as the meeker man who ends up with Tashi and becoming a tennis star. But the quiet judgement remains, where Tashi views Art less as a man and more of an athlete that can be whipped into a performance. What follows is messy love triangle of two men trying to grow up and realize their feelings, while one controlling woman’s tennis kink locks her into a box of self-hatred.

Director Luca Guadagnino has crafted a highly sexual film that knows how to titillate and tease its audience to extreme degrees. Nearly every sex scene that develops is cut off by Tashi for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s to watch Patrick and Art kiss and other times it’s to see just how hot the blood can boil when is more important than an orgasm. It’s interesting how the few sex scenes present in the film develop in the most awkward ways, considering both of them take place with a parked car, one of which is parked outside an Applebee’s.

And then there’s the tennis sequences which are just as hot and heavy as the make-out moments. Posed with a variety of shots, ranging from overhead views to a POV of the tennis ball, there’s great excitement in the big match of the film. The ultimate showdown between Patrick and Art is not just about their careers, but their future relationships and that obsession comes through beautifully. The many close-ups reveal the sweat and grit in this sexual showcase of tennis. Combine this with the intense score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and it’s impossible to look away from the screen for its raw energy and powerful obsession with sports, sex, and dominance.

Challengers is a highly provocative erotic tennis drama that is so wickedly seductive and astounding. The direction is so bold that the laughing, wincing, and wooing from the audience made this spicy film such a treat to watch with a crowd. All of it plays out like the sexiest of melodramas that grows more intense by the minute, finding just the right moments to evoke eroticism and comical reactions. There’s a lot of faith placed in the audience to watch this picture effortlessly go from the horny kissing of a threesome to the slapstick antics of slapping a boner. It’s a tennis film so good because it’s not really about tennis and not really about sex. It’s a complicated relationship between the two that makes for some fantastic chemistry I can’t stop thinking about.

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