Theme parks are beloved staples of entertainment culture, packing droves of families and adolescents to encounter a plethora of high-flying thrills. While most parks present themselves with a pristine family image, the wild-child death trap known as Action Park refused to fall in line. In the new HBO Max documentary Class Action Park, this relic of reckless 80’s culture is amusingly deconstructed through a nostalgic gaze.
Class Action Park follows the short-lived history of Action Park, a New Jersey theme park founded by disgraced Wall Street executive Eugene Mulvihill. His creation, a theme park bristling with death-defying stunt work, would become a controversial fixture in its local area. Directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III delve into the park’s complex history, observing its equally alluring and dangerous elements.
Much of the film’s pleasures come from the bewilderment of its so-crazy-its-true deep dive into the park’s history. Meshing a plethora of anecdotes from former workers, executives, and patrons, the wide-ranging subjects aptly convey the utter insanity of what Mulvihill haphazardly created (comedian Chris Gethard generates some laugh-out-loud moments from his recollections).
Whether they’re discussing a rickety loop slide that defies the laws of physics or the sophomoric ways rides were tested (Mulvihill would stand at the end of attractions with $100 bills for daredevil employees), Porges and Charles Scott III direction display their keen awareness for what made the park a folklore-legend, reveling in the makeshift improbability of its unsafe and wholly unique design. They also imbue a nostalgic glow that emanates throughout the production, observing the reckless abandon of the patrons’ 1980’s livelihood with a bittersweet flavor (Gethard shares how his former thrills have now morphed into fear with age).
Class Action Park is often amusing, yet the documentary’s scope far exceeds its reach. There’s a clear effort to capture the more sinister’s conditions of the park’s business, with their thinly-developed practices taking lives and undercutting the plight of those impacted. Structurally, the film doesn’t balance its different perspectives, relegating the dour details into a truncated third act. These moments don’t mesh with the humorous elements nor add enough substantive observations about the park’s lingering impact. It feels like there’s still a great movie to be made about Action Park (Johnny Knoxville also tried), with this effort only basking in the superficial thrills of the park’s history.
That being said, Class Action Park still works as a brisk and alluring time capsule to a bizarre footnote in 80’s culture.
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