June Film Reviews: Challengers, The Fall Guy

Words by Harry Moore

 

The Fall Guy

         When an A-list movie star goes missing from the set of his latest film, his lowly stunt double is tasked with tracking him down and saving the movie. The newest film from stuntman turned director David Leitch is an ode to the often-ignored men and women of his former profession packed with sequences that demonstrate their talents to their full extent, The Fall Guy positions itself as a kind of a throwback to blockbusters of years past relying on supremely executed stunt choreography and the charismatic charms of an A list movie star.

         For over a decade now, Ryan Gosling has been the cinephile’s choice for modern leading men. Gosling’s choices on which projects to pursue and what to pass on reveal a genuine love for the medium and unique taste that has allowed him to build a body of work that is diverse, distinctive, and almost always interesting. As a performer, Gosling has shown incredible range without ever having to go for a method-based transformation; the number of actors who would be able to not betray their on-screen persona while convincingly pulling off performances in both Drive and La La Land is few and far between. After years of well regarded, but often underperforming passion projects, Gosling has veered headfirst into the blockbuster realm, first with Netflix’s forgettable spy thriller The Gray Man, and then stealing the show as Ken in the sensation that was Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. As Colt Seavers in The Fall Guy, Gosling steps up to take the lead in a blockbuster designed to kick off the summer movie season and largely excels at elevating a script that often stumbles in some of the pitfalls that pervade many modern event films. Where the crutch of excessive, quippy adlibs is often grating coming from the mouths of other (possibly Canadian) actors (who may also be named Ryan), Gosling makes it land and feel a piece with the character. Though this performance could be seen as somewhat of a vanilla rehash of his landmark comedic turn in The Nice Guys, Gosling still shows his leading man qualifications with his likable presence and handling of action, humor, and romance that is required of the position. Opposite him, Emily Blunt stars as the foil and love interest Jody, giving a reliably capable, if largely unmemorable, performance, which has become a bit of a hallmark of her career. The supporting cast all play their roles well, with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Hannah Waddingham, and Winston Duke making their mark and sharing winning chemistry with Gosling.

Stunt work has been a critical aspect of filmmaking since its inception, preceding sound, color, and digital effects by many years, so celebrating them with a big spectacle event movie is the least the industry could do for them – though a category for stunts at the Oscars should be higher on their to-do list. The Fall Guy is a fun action-comedy that is elevated by a movie star who is at the top of his class.

 

 

Challengers

Luca Guadagnino’s sports drama follows the complexly entangled relationship between three burgeoning pro tennis players, detailing how their personal and professional ups and downs reveal their competitive natures go much further than just on the court. When it comes to making transgressive dramas about messy relationships with a decisively contemporary perspective, Luca Guadagnino is in a league of his own. Upon its release Call Me by Your Name quickly became a coming-of-age classic as a tender love story about sexual discovery, while Bones and All is a dark parable for the intense emotions of a first love. Guadagnino has repeatedly shown his knack for capturing the turmoil of the relationships of young people and Challengers is another subversive take on this theme.

Told through overlapping timelines between the bygone era of 2006 and 2019, the film is led by a finely calibrated performance by Zendaya who stars as Tashi, a once-promising tennis phenom whose career is cut short before it even begins. Tashi is also at the center of a love triangle between childhood best friends, and former doubles partners, Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), with both boys vying for her affection over the years. The story spans between when the two boys first meet Tashi, and a US Open Challenger tournament that has proven to be critical for both men to win as they face off with one another after years of competitiveness and resentment have driven them apart. Guadagnino and his editor Marco Costa do an excellent job of weaving these timelines to maximize the dramatic effect of the story and to influence the audiences shifting sympathies for the characters, as each revelation of a past dalliance or betrayal alters our perception of the dynamic and who we are rooting for to succeed. The characters’ personalities are clearly drawn which sets them up well for sparks to fly when they collide into each other. Patrick is confident and laidback while Art is more anxious and calculating. Early on Patrick repels us as his boisterous personality quickly veers into smarminess, however, Art’s duplicitous actions to try to draw Tashi’s gaze away from his longtime friend makes Patrick feel positively charming by comparison. As Patrick, Josh O’Connor largely steals the show giving an incredibly charismatic performance that fills the frame; that he manages to find a way to make this seemingly slimy character remotely endearing speaks to his capabilities as a performer. Mike Faist also does well to bring Art to life, making him the film’s most believable character in the face of the larger-than-life personalities of Patrick and Tashi. Zendaya does her best with the material, she is an incredibly talented actor and it will be interesting to see what type of roles she takes on as she attempts to ascend to leading on the silver screen, and while she shines playing the younger Tashi, I felt she currently lacks the maturity as a performer to pull off the older, more jaded version of the character. Which isn’t a discredit to what she does well in the film, such as making Tashi so incredibly poised and effervescent that it is believable that she could come between two lifelong friends, but playing a character whose story spans many years is an incredible challenge for any actor. The film is a decisively modern one in many respects. Thematically, its handling of sexuality is very reflective of millennial and Gen Z attitudes with the subtext of Art and Patrick having a strong current of infatuation simmering beneath their friendship being layered on so thick that it is genuinely surprising that it doesn’t play into the story itself. Beyond the portrayal of his characters, Guadagnino also makes bold choices in his filmmaking; the editing is propulsive throughout the film and every shot is artistically designed and captured, taking more cues from Nike commercials than from other films. Musically, the film is also operating at a high level with rockstars turned preeminent composers Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross delivering a pulsating score that dominates many scenes and takes cues from techno, creating music that stands on its own away from the film. The choices for songs are also eclectic and well-observed for signaling the time and place a scene is taking place in, with Nelly’s “Hot In Here” and Lily Allen’s “Smile” dropping in scenes that take place a long, long time ago in the mid-2000s.

 Challengers is a unique film in the current cinematic landscape, an enthralling and often intoxicating drama that is definitively made for a more adult audience that is about little more than seduction and a love for the game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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