Film poster for Clubbed. Copyright 2008, © Formosa Films (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
At 6:30am on 15 November 2005 I found myself waiting outside Glen Smith's "Red Corner" gym in Coventry. It was dark and cold, and I was tired, and yet my diary entry reads like the blabbering of an excited schoolboy: "My day began with a dream come true!" It was for a very good reason. Until the middle of June the following year Geoff Thompson took in an invitation-only group of coaches and friends to work out with him. I was fortunate to have been invited to this group. Those gatherings inspired a lot in a very short space of time. Geoff used it as a blueprint for his master classes. Two of his coaches, Matty and Tony, also now teach their own master classes. As for me, I had already appeared on the front over of Martial Arts Illustrated alongside Geoff earlier that year and part of our training at the Red Corner gym was used for the second part of my DVD series. However, it was after these short but intensive sessions, where we drilled striking and grappling for an hour, that the real gold appeared. During these post-workout sessions Matty and I organized the first John "Awesome" Anderson seminar and Tony Somers convinced me to conduct my first public workshop at the biggest martial arts expo in UK, "Seni". It was also during these discussions that Geoff discussed his current projects – and the biggest of them all was his first feature film "Clubbed".
At 8:40pm on 18 January 2009 I entered screen eight of the Coventry Showcase cinema. It is a drizzly evening and I will need to get up early the following morning. I love the cinema, but my exciting and very packed year will mean that most films I wish to see will end up on my DVD rental list. This one won't. I'll buy it. In 2009 "Clubbed" went on general release. I watched it during its opening weekend not just to support Geoff, who I regularly credit as being a huge inspiration in my martial arts and writing career, but because I have eagerly waited for the "Watch My Back" story to finally make it to the big screen. It has been a long journey for Geoff and such is the style of his work that most of his regular readers feel like they have travelled the journey with him.
Geoff's first book was "Watch My Back: A Bouncer's Story". It was finished when he was still working the doors in Coventry and taken up by a small travel book publisher, Summersdale. "Watch My Back" predated the slew of "True Crime" autobiographies that now includes gangsters, football hooligans and underground fighters, and the "Tragic True Story" subgenre that occurred much later. Geoff was and still is a prolific writer and it wasn't long before he had brought out several books with accompanying videos on his approach to martial arts and self defence. Geoff often describes martial arts as his vehicle for getting his ideas across. His main fan base came and still comes from his impact on the martial arts scene. However, there is one experience that seems to have permeated his soul even more profoundly and reoccurs again and again through most of what he does: working the doors in 1980s Coventry.
It wasn't long after "Watch My Back" that Geoff published "Bouncer" and then "On the Door", which concluded the story of Geoff's career as a doorman. All three books would be amalgamated into a single volume "Watch My Back" with added material that included more about Geoff's troubled past and the motivational lessons he learnt. The grittiness was still there, but there was a more positive slant to the work and "Watch My Back" departed from Geoff's series of martial arts-related works. It was sold alongside his "Method" series of books, motivational works that he continues to write now. However, Geoff was still not finished with the demons of the door. He recalled how fears of confrontation and violence had been replaced by the fear of repercussions of living a violent life. This fear is expressed Ray Winstone's character, Dave, in Geoff's first short film "Bouncer" and is paraphrased from the Fredrick Nietzsche quote: "He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself".
A fight towards the end of Geoff's career on the doors almost resulted in his opponent dying. This brought the stark reality of the possibility of a life sentence in prison. Such a fear influenced the dark twists of both "Bouncer" and Geoff's first stage play, "Doorman", as did the "every doorman's nightmare" of revenge attacks by their enemies. In "Bouncer" the violent and legal repercussions are linked and this is carried over into "Clubbed". However, before he got to the feature film, Geoff had one more outlet to channel his story into: "Red Mist". I know of at least one film-maker who actually considered this book, alone, to be movie material.
"Red Mist" was Geoff's first foray into fiction. Far more demanding than non-fiction, Geoff laboured hard on what would become a successful novel. The work meshed true experiences that couldn't go into "Watch My Back" with fictionalized accounts of the nightmarish consequences Geoff feared during his career on the doors.
"Red Mist" is worth mentioning because of two main differences that separate it from "Bouncer" and "Doorman". The most obvious one is that the story does not revolve around working the doors. The lead character, Martin, is just a normal civilian whose decision to step in and help someone plunges him into a world of violence. Because of this he is a more sympathetic character than the charismatic but narrow-minded Dave from "Bouncer" and the complex and tortured violence-addict, Tony, from "Doorman".
The second major difference was its ending. Unlike "Bouncer" and "Doorman", "Red Mist" does not resemble a tragedy of errors, although the first half of the book reads like a tragedy of circumstances or what the great Aristotle might have called a "Misadventure". I remember when I first read it thinking that Martin was like the ill-fated innocent heroine Tess of Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" in the way his life seemed to victimize him. By the stage when Martin ran from his sexually and violently abusive father to a priest who also revealed himself to be a paedophilic predator I was beginning to think it was actually closer to the Marquis De Sade's heroine, Justine from the nihilistic "Justine (or the Misfortunes of Virtue)". However, this was not to be the case. In line with the positive motivational writings that now made up all of Geoff's non-fiction output since the millennium, "Red Mist" showed readers a flawed and very human hero that learnt from his mistakes and used the bad luck that had victimized him as a source of strength to fight back.
"Red Mist" also introduced Geoff's troubled past, including the child abuse that Geoff suffered at the hands of his Aikido instructor. This harrowing information taken from Geoff's background had been added to the new version of "Watch My Back" and formed one of the book's major themes of redemption. The child abuse was wisely not present in "Clubbed", but given focus in his award winning 2007 short, "Romans 12:20". What was present, however, was the genesis of the type of person who sought out the career of a doorman to confront his fears.
"Red Mist" had presented a man who went on a personal odyssey, who feared the worst, but ultimately made the right decisions. Nevertheless, like "Bouncer" and "Doorman", the main protagonist came in fully formed. He had the knowledge and ability, but had chosen to atrophy and allow the burden of his bad experiences crush his self-esteem. The journey through "Red Mist" saw him get back into physical and mental shape, confront his past demons and then take on a life defining challenge. This was progress on from Bouncer's Dave who was a likeable character created from several different people Geoff knew on the doors, most obviously Geoff himself and John "Awesome" Anderson, but blinkered to anything other than life working on the doors. Tony from "Doorman" was clearly more self-aware and the extra time and focus permitted in a stage play meant that Geoff could really expose the vulnerabilities of a man who made violence his profession. However, it still didn't express the full story behind Geoff's "Watch My Back".
In "Clubbed" we have both the Geoff Thompson persona and the John Anderson persona presented individually and other supporting characters also fleshed out in relevant sub-plots. Danny is introduced as the most vulnerable embodiment of Geoff's fears to date. He has less self-esteem than Martin, suffers more depression than Tony and begins the film with a vision even more limited than Dave's. Unlike all these characters and even Geoff, Danny has no physical training whatsoever when he encounters the realities of violence. As if to lay bare another tortuous fear, Danny is brutally and humiliatingly beaten in front of his own children, who he was only trying to protect. His relationship with his ex-wife is also given time and his weakness through infidelity revealed as part of his back story.
Danny is presented with three maps for life that are embodied by the three doormen he meets in a local boxing gym and eventually joins. In line with Geoff's personal philosophy, these three characters are actually outward projections of the main character. Each are essentially flawed human beings with redeeming features. Sparky is immediately presented as the least likeable of the three. He represents the fallen and when we meet him he is already beginning his descent. Like Macbeth, Sparky is not a bad person, but temptation hits him early and he takes the infamous easy root. His counterpart is Rob, a far more sympathetic person, but one who has his own hang-ups attached to a long dead drug-using and wife-beating father. Finally there is Louis, the most obvious John Anderson-inspired character in any of Geoff's fiction. Louis is the head doorman and the man who becomes Danny's mentor. He is the closest to a pure character in the story, but his role as nemesis's enforcer comes with a heavy consequence and, once again, we see the legal penalty that haunted Geoff at the end of every violent encounter.
"Clubbed" lays bare much of Geoff Thompson's favourite themes, ideas and his philosophy. Much of this has been lost on early critics who have been quick to pigeonhole the film under the British gangster category. It is true that gangsters are a part of the film. The character, Henesey, is a drug dealing gang boss and just the sort of "dragon" Nietzsche was talking about. The Faustian pact Henesey makes with Sparky and the chance violent encounter one of the gangster's thugs has with Danny are catalysts for the main events that occupy the film. Other characters then become devices to show Danny the different paths he can take. The character of Rob gives actor Shaun Parkes a chance to revisit the tragic good doorman persona who suffers the violent after work consequences of working on the door. In "Bouncer", he played the affable character, John, a man who didn't take a serious comeback threat seriously. In "Clubbed" the running time of a feature film allowed this character to be expanded upon. It also explores the nature of Geoff's "reciprocal universe" philosophy. On several occasions Geoff has stated that even "well intentioned" violence, like the vigilante type that Rob uses, will have repercussions. This reveals the moral fable at the heart of the film.
Despite the obvious karmic theme there is a decidedly Christian message in "Clubbed". Such mixtures do not seem to be a concern for Geoff who follows a very liberal and principle-based view of Christianity. He has regularly cited the discipline of Judaism's Kabbalah, the writings of Hinduism's Bhagavad Gita and the virtues of Buddhism before using the rich "fire and brimstone" metaphors found in Dante's Catholic view of heaven, hell and purgatory in "The Divine Comedy" and Milton's Protestant view of the fall of man in "Paradise Lost". "God is like the internet" he has often said to me, "and religions are like search engines". Geoff, who was raised as a Roman Catholic, does not see religion as being above reproach. As previously mentioned, both "Romans 12:20" and "Red Mist" feature Catholic priests who sexually abuse young boys. "Clubbed" may present the religion in a slightly better light as Rob's mother clearly finds solace in regularly attending her local church, however, there is still a light ribbing when it is later revealed that the "taxes" Rob was taking off ejected drug dealers and donating to the church's children charity ended up paying for the church's roof!
However, this is all fairly superficial stuff when we compare the Christian symbolism that is in the very fabric of the film's storytelling and perhaps deep within Geoff's own subconscious. The most obvious example can be found when Rob is quite literally crucified (interestingly the crucifixion does not escape Geoff's pragmatic nature, as the wrists are nailed, as opposed to the hands, which is in line with modern scientific historical thinking). Sparky's fall, perhaps reminiscent of the many falls from grace found within the Old and New Testaments, results in his suicide born from the misery he has plunged his life into and the guilt of Rob's murder. It is tempting to see altered biblical disciples in these two characters: perhaps a Peter who did not heed the warning "Those who live by the sword will die by the sword" and Sparky, a type of Judas that finds redemption in death rather than damnation.
Sparky is the newest of Geoff's character archetypes. He is far more than an example of "becoming the dragon". He is an exploration of weakness, addiction and finally redemption. His subplot which drives the destinies that Louis, Rob and Danny face is an extreme example of one of Geoff's tragedy of errors. In this sense, he is a true tragic hero and, once again, I find Macbeth as the reference for his valiant side reappears when all is lost and his destruction is in sight.
Louis is, of course, the single most fascinating character in the story alongside Danny. He is almost perfection and therefore the role model for Danny uses to overcome his fears. However, his flaws are representative in a failed relationship he mentions and his dream of becoming a boxing coach that he closes the door on before moving towards his destiny. Knowing that Ayn Rand's novel on personal integrity and individualism, "The Fountainhead", is one of Geoff's big sources of philosophical inspiration I first pondered whether Louis was Geoff's Harry Roark presented as a supporting role. Then I realized that despite not being the one actually crucified he represented a more Christ-like figure. Geoff claims that this wasn't an obvious intention, but I feel it nevertheless comes out in this work. Louis has his followers and he has a philosophy that Danny uses to realize his potential, and – in the end – he is the sacrifice needed to allow Danny to make the right decisions. According to Geoff's personal philosophy if you have good intentions the universe conspires to help you and Louis is an example of a device that does this for Danny. Interestingly this presents an interdependent idea to go alongside the "God helps those who help themselves" independence that Danny finds in his personal struggles.
"Clubbed" completes Geoff's doorman circle. The film appropriately ends with Danny finishing his first draft of the book that the film is derived from, "Watch My Back". As I left the cinema on that dark and wet night I thought of all that I knew had led up to that film. There was a definite pattern and I first glimpsed it during those cold mornings training at the Red Corner Gym. Every week Geoff would return to the same martial arts technique. It was a process he called "layering". The idea was that you continually improved and expanded your skill level by going back to a certain point. Geoff has done this through his various products. His first book focused on his days working the doors, his first play and short film were exclusively about this part of his life, and his first novel was clearly inspired by this period. Since then he has made several other more successful award-winning short films and is currently back into writing stage plays. It was only appropriate that his first feature film would also return to this life-changing period of his career. The question now is what will happen when he returns to layer this most of powerful conveyor of ideas?