Ah, amusement parks; the sites of “controlled fun” that you either love or loathe. Whether you like the themes and characters of something like Disney World, the rides and thrills of Carowinds, or the wet-and-splashy water park fun of Wet ‘n’ Wild, there’s something for everyone on board with the overall idea. Apart from the opening sequence of Final Destination 3 (and a few real-life incidents, too), amusement parks are generally safe places that, in most circumstances, undergo rigorous testing and maintenance to uphold the utmost safety. Regulations, public opinions, and people’s livelihoods depend on this safety, but what if I told you that there was once a park that made its mark on the world by actively not being that? Enter Action Park in Vernon, NJ. Located 45 miles outside of New York City, Action Park was a theme park like no other, putting the onus of safety on the riders themselves, and utilizing groundbreaking, experimental rides not seen anywhere else on Earth (because they were not tested or approved by engineers). It in itself is one of the finest examples of a Reagan-era individualistically regulated amusement park that is now the stuff of legend, both nostalgic and tragic.
Welcome to Class Action Park.
Now, as a casual amusement park enthusiast, I have seen things about Action Park before, and even was excited about the film loosely based on the park, Action Point, starring Johnny Knoxville (which I still haven’t seen, because everyone who saw it told me I shouldn’t see it). But nothing has enthralled me more, from start to finish, about the topic of the park than Class Action Park, a feature documentary that digs into both the draw and consequences of running a park so negligently dangerous.
What’s so fascinating about Class Action Park lies in the perspectives it sources from former guests, employees, management, and victims of Action Park’s reign of terror on its guests. This is a documentary that truly handles the “all sides” argument of objective filmmaking with a wonderful brevity, mostly because even the most liberal of opinions on the park still agreed that everything about it was a bad idea. Love it or hate it, it’s hard to justify the existence of Action Park, but damn, does it make for good filmmaking.
Even if you’re aware of the park’s legacy, it’s still easy to take much of the first half of the film without a weird hybrid of both a massive grin and your jaw slamming against the floor as it details the absolutely insane and reckless attractions the park had over its years of operation, even more so when the reputation of Action Park began to come from being able to “survive” a visit to the park, with guests full-well knowing what they were getting into from attending. It’s a powerfully moving, and sometimes hilariously wrong, look at just what humans will do to each other for entertainment when the rules are rescinded.
But once you get past the hilariously wrong antics of Action Park on a good day, Class Action Park takes you down the rabbit hole of Action Park on its bad days, and the film gets serious very quickly. When the light, airy feeling from watching stoned teenagers usher hoards of guests onto a single water slide fades, the harsh reality of the park’s danger sets in. The concrete burns and broken bones are one thing, but then we get to the deaths that came from Action Park’s troubled existence. I’ll be honest in saying that throughout the film, I could understand the pull of Action Park, and there was a part of me that thought “Y’know…I’d still go,” up until this point of the film. Hearing the families of victims of the park’s danger, and the megalomaniac owner’s judicial torture in never settling any case that came against the park, began an infuriating turn that lead Class Action Park down a dark path.
But when it all comes together, the film is not one that seeks to lecture you on the dangers of unregulated fun, as they fully still understand, especially in the height of the 1980s, why Action Park was so rightfully popular, but it never ceases to remind you how often one person’s fun comes at another’s expense, from an injury to their life. It’s a shocking tale of managerial negligence that only could have been possible in the ‘80s, and something that could never exist in this world again. This is what makes the story of Class Action Park so incredibly riveting and oddly fun, despite its eventual serious nature, is that it’s a vision of times gone by that will never return, and a look back on a time that was so singular, it was an experience as thrilling as the rides themselves.
Currently screening during the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Streaming on HBO Max beginning August 27th, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.