A tense romantic triangle plays out on the tennis court: NPR

Art (Mike Faist), Tashi (Zendaya) and Patrick (Josh O'Connor) are involved in a love triangle. Challengers.

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Art (Mike Faist), Tashi (Zendaya) and Patrick (Josh O'Connor) are involved in a love triangle. Challengers.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Photos

As much as I liked his Suspiria remake and his cannibal thriller Bones and all, it's nice to see Italian director Luca Guadagnino making a film that doesn't end with buckets of blood. His new sports film, Challengers, instead comes drenched in buckets of sweat, and it's the most purely entertaining thing he's made in years. It gives us a romantic triangle set in the world of tennis, with three fantastic actors in roles that are both athletically demanding and emotionally rich.

It starts on a tennis court in New Rochelle, a city just north of New York City, the site of a prestigious second-tier competition known as a Challenger tournament. On one side of the net is Art Donaldson, played by Mike Faist. Art has won three of four Grand Slam events but is now in a slump. He faces off against his former best friend, Patrick Zweig, played by Josh O'Connor. Patrick hasn't had as illustrious a career as Art, but he is arguably the more gifted player.

Art's wife and coach, Tashi Duncan, played by Zendaya, watches them anxiously from the stands. It's clear that these three characters have a complicated history, which Guadagnino and screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes then unravel through a dizzying series of flashbacks.

And so we jump back 13 years to the time when Art and Patrick were buddies and doubles partners. Around this time, they meet Tashi, a great tennis player who is about to start her freshman year at Stanford. The boys begin a friendly competition for Tashi's affection, which the more confident Patrick initially wins. But after several ups and downs, including a twist that derails Tashi's tennis career, she marries Art and becomes his coach. Now, years later, this fateful Challenger tournament has brought the estranged Art and Patrick face to face once again. It is here that Patrick privately confronts Tashi and makes a surprising proposal, asking her to become his coach.

Even if all the switching between past and present gets a little repetitive, Challengers throws off an unstoppable energy. In the tennis scenes, the camera seems to be everywhere at once, and a hypnotic techno score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross pulses and undulates beneath the action. And like Guadagnino's Call me by your name, Challengers has a frank sensuality that reminds you how sexually timid most mainstream American films are in comparison.

There isn't that much sex in the film, but there is so much erotic tension and atmosphere that it doesn't matter. Guadagnino is a master of teasing – and so is Tashi, it turns out. In an early, flirty scene with the three of them, Tashi not only maintains the upper hand, but also reveals that these two guys may be more attracted to each other than they let on. But as the years pass, their youthful longing for Tashi gives way to a deeper need.

As art, Faist shows as much live-wire physicality here as he did in the West Side Story remake, although his performance becomes more melancholic over time as Art confronts his limitations. O'Connor, on the other hand, is just as well-behaved as Patrick, who always leads the way with his devilishly charming smile. And then there's Zendaya, who is so brilliant in her early tennis scenes that I wish Tashi hadn't been sidelined and forced to play the role of mentor and muse to two men. But like in the recent one Dune: part twoZendaya keeps you watching with her mix of fierce intelligence and emotional uncertainty – about who will win the competition and what it could mean for her future.

Will Tashi stick with Art, the safe, skilled player who might not have the guts to become one of the all-time greats? Or will she return to Patrick, the superior but more volatile talent? The film resolves this dilemma in a grand finale that is both thrilling and maddening in the way it pushes this triangle and this tennis match to the breaking point. But by then you can't blame Guadagnino for loving his characters so passionately, or being so reluctant to let them go. If it were up to him, the game would never end.

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