REVIEW: Challengers - fab camera work but still doesn't quite serve up a winner

Challengers (15), (131 mins), Cineworld Cinemas.
Challengers (Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)Challengers (Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)
Challengers (Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

Challengers probably falls someway short of serving up a winner, but it’s still a pretty good film about sport, about the motivations behind it and about the dark, dark twists those motivations can take.

In alternating scenes from the present and either 13 or eight years ago, it’s the tale of rivalry on and mostly off the tennis court, the intersecting lives of three people drawn to each other and yet not quite ever finding a way of making it work.

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Zendaya – and it’s a cool and sexy performance throughout – was the rising superstar tennis player Tashi whose career is brutally cut short by a ghastly knee injury.

Before that happens though, she attracts the attention of Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor), life-long mates and tennis players vastly her inferior. They are drawn to her charisma, her sheer stariness – and she toys with them, accepting an invitation back to their room. Canoodling begins, with Tashi quickly realising that they might just be more attracted to each other than they are to her – which surprises them in a way it certainly won’t the audience.

But then she agrees to bestow her own favours on whichever of the two wins when they next play each other. Cue a pretty disastrous relationship with Patrick. But back in the present, it’s Art she’s married to. She’s now his coach, he’s conquered plenty of tennis highs but his ball-thumping mojo has gone missing – the moment at which Patrick, down on his luck, unable to afford a hotel and living in his car, signs up for the tournament Art is playing in. Predictably, inevitably, they end up facing each other in the final, years of resentment, estrangement and downright hostility hotting up the battle. It’s not just about who’s the loser on the tennis court – and this is where the film is at its best, particularly towards the end when the pace and the passion of the tennis match are dizzyingly caught by some nifty camera work.

Then comes an ending which will certainly leave you discussing it all the way home. It’s sudden and it’s unexpected – another twist in a twisty and complex film, one which is possibly let down a little by its endless flitting between the two time zones. It’s cleverly done with different looks and different haircuts signalling the difference, and maybe the fact that it is often disorientating is deliberate – you are constantly looking one way and then the other just as you would at a tennis match.

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However, it’s certainly overdone, though in fairness it’s a film that grows on you more once you get back home and think about it.

And there’s no doubting a terrific performance from Zendaya, unreadable and torn, plus strong performances too from Faist and O’Connor in a weird menage a trois which leaves no one particularly satisfied and yet which none of them can escape from.

The sparks between the three of them are enough to keep the film firing – and the fabulous camera work towards the end lifts it all considerably.

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