By Leah Greenblatt
August 25, 2020 at 07:49 PM EDT
Advertisement
HBO Max

They came, they saw, they Cannonball Looped… and sometimes, they died. To anyone who grew up in the tri-state area in the 1980s and '90s, New Jersey’s Action Park was legendary for its wildly unregulated rides and rampant teenage hedonism. For the rest of us, there’s Chris Charles Scott and Seth Porges’ new documentary (on HBO Max Aug. 27), a giddy but not unserious exploration of one man’s dream that became a sort of rogue-Six Flags reality.

The trailer also calls it a true-crime story, which is not inaccurate: Owner Gene Mulvihill — a figure seemingly part P.T. Barnum, part Paulie Walnuts, and part Willy Wonka — ran the park by his own rules, many of which ignored the more pressing laws of physics and the limits of the human body. He lived to make the waterslides a little bit steeper, the wave pool a little bit higher (hence its nickname, the Grave Pool).

That, combined with a largely underage staff, an open beer hall, and an extremely lax eye toward anything resembling safety regulations, created a sort of perfect funplex storm — one that a trove of past parkgoers and employees (including comedians Chris Gethard and Alison Becker) look back on with both wistfulness and hard-R clarity.

Alongside narrator John Hodgman, they celebrate the park for the wild freedoms it promised without skimping on the risks that followed; those worst-case scenarios take a far more serious turn in the final third, a sudden swerve that doesn't always sit easily, particularly in the film's final moments. (Less jarring but equally intriguing is the directors' focus on how much Action Park represented a bygone era of free-range child-rearing, in which kids were treated less like precious cargo than small, unsupervised conquistadors).

Mostly, though, the movie's just pure fun; a cock-eyed Valentine to a place so outrageous that death or dismemberment was an actual acceptable risk — but so was the chance to live, as one former security guard fondly recalls, in “an ‘80s movie that was real life. And it will never happen again.” B+

Related content:

Comments