Monday, May 10, 2010

Chanoc en el Circo Union (Mexico, 1979)

In my defense, it was not until I began watching Chanoc en el Circo Union that I realized that it was perhaps not the most appropriate film to include in Jungle Adventure Month[TM]. However, its hero was born in the jungle (or, as Fletcher Hanks would phrase it, “jungle born”), and it has a circus setting, so even though the action doesn’t take place in the jungle, we still get jungle movie staples like tiger wrestling and mischievous chimp sidekicks… not to mention the added bonus of midgets with blowguns.

After all, what is the circus movie if not an offshoot of the jungle adventure movie? The only difference between the two, setting aside, is that, in a jungle movie, the tigers are free to attack and chomp on humans as they please, whereas, in a circus movie, they compliantly jump through flaming hoops. God, circus movies suck!

But not Chanoc en el Circo Union, which is a bit surprising to me. It’s director, Rafael Perez Grovas, around the same time as he directed this film, also helmed a couple of particularly wan late Santo films that really did their aging star no favors. Since Circo Union doesn’t show evidence of any previously undisclosed gifts on the filmmaker’s part, I’m going to assume that he here benefited from the combination of a colorful setting and a more youthful and energetic star.

Obviously, the character Chanoc needs no introduction. Psyche! Seriously, though, if you lived in Mexico during the 60s or 70s, that would probably be true. But for the rest of you, Chanoc, at least from his first appearance in print in 1959 until the debut of Kaliman in 1965, was Mexico’s most popular comic book hero. A Tarzan-like figure who was driven from his jungle home, Chanoc somehow came to settle in a Mexican fishing village, where he continued his work as a noble defender of the weak and downtrodden.

Such was Chanoc’s popularity that his adventures became the basis for eight feature films. Chanoc en el Circo Union is the next to last of these, with star Alejandro Fuentes taking over the lead from professional animal wrangler Humberto Gurza, who had starred in the previous three. For some reason, Fuentes didn’t return to the role afterward, which I can only guess was his own choice, as he does a pretty good job here. He’s not only suitably charismatic (if not overwhelmingly expressive), but also an athletic performer, and can be clearly seen to perform many of his own stunts in the film.

While previous Chanoc films would pit their hero against vampires and other supernatural foes, his opponents in Circo Union are comparably more prosaic. Here we see Chanoc offering his services as an animal handler to a circus in order to flush out a gang of black marketers that is using it as a cover. While doing his undercover bit to determine the identity of the gang’s mysterious leader, he also finds time to thrill the crowds with his ability to make formerly wild animals perform humiliating tricks and also to romance a buxom trapeze artist played by top-billed star Diana Torres. Meanwhile, Chanoc’s godfather/sidekick, Tzekub -- who I think can most accurately be described as a “daffy old coot” -- goes about playing detective in his own fashion, which naturally results in him constantly having to be bailed out of trouble by Chanoc.

When I took on Jungle Adventure Month[TM], I knew that one of its major perils was going to be that I would inevitably stumble upon animal stars whom I wish I had included in the recently wrapped-up 4DK Animalympics (SPOILER: the marmoset won). And with Chanoc en el Circo Union we have the first instance of that happening. Now, here I am not talking, as you might expect, about Chanoc’s chimp companion Chuchu Chuchu, although the Chuch-ster indeed has a lot to recommend him: an ability to mug and jeer alongside the best of them, the requisite knack for bopping bad guys over the head with comically large bats, anthropomorphic costumery, etc. No, the exceptional beast that I am talking about in this case has a part in Chanoc en el Circo Union that, though very brief, casts a mighty shadow upon all that surrounds it:

This anipal’s appearance occurs as part of a circus performance in which an elephant is shown stepping over star Diana Torres and letting its giant foot hover just inches over her reclining form. By this means the animal displays its uncanny ability to restrain itself from stomping the life out of a small and annoying human despite the fact that it undoubtedly really wants to.

Immediately following that, a clown leads onto the stage a tiny dog in an elephant costume who replicates the elephant act in miniature with a couple of Barbie dolls.

Fuck. And. Yes.

In the final tally, Chanoc en el Circo Union is a moderately diverting, Saturday matinee style entertainment, much along the lines of the type of adventure films that Hollywood studios churned out as B programmers during the 40s and 50s. I think part of the reason that it passed muster with me is that, as a Mexican action film from the 70s, its lack of a hero wearing a wrestling mask with a sport coat and tie reduced my expectations of awesomeness correspondingly.

And speaking of which, after Circo Union, Chanoc would make one final screen appearance, starring alongside the Son of Santo in Chanoc and the Son of Santo vs The Vampire Assassins (though in that instance, with one-timer Nelson Velazquez in the role). Word is that that film’s pretty dire, but, after Circo Union, I’m nonetheless curious to see Chanoc do his stuff against a more traditional lucha movie style foe, by which I mean a Frankenstein, or a wolfman, or a Dracula.

But, you know what? I’d watch Chanoc fight a man made out of pipe cleaners if I knew that tiny dog in the elephant suit was going to be in the movie.

This review is part of “Stranded in the Jungle”, a month of Jungle Adventure themed posts at 4DK.


Radio Schmaydio said...

I showed my wife your animal star and she laughed like a loon. Genius. This is why yours is the most important movie blog in the world today.

Todd said...

Aww. You're too kind!

memsaab said...

I am pretty sure Gemma would be seriously pissed off if I put her in an elephant costume, although she loves watching jungle movies and barking at elephants with the tv screen as a shield. But now I really really really want to do that.

Todd said...

Dogs are very forgiving. Aren't they?

memsaab said...

I'm not actually convinced that Gemma is a dog. She appears to be at least part cat too. Many people have noticed this too, not just me.

Donna Dixon said...