When it comes to military service, there are a few branches that are notorious for producing some of the toughest soldiers to ever walk the Earth, and undoubtedly, the French Foreign Legion belongs among those ranks (no pun intended). That’s a fact that Dominiquie Vandenberg can surely attest to, having spent five years in the Legion and seeing combat in some of the most war-torn corners of the planet. Following his time in the Legion, Dom would later compete professionally in Muay Thai and Burmese boxing in Southeast Asia, and both career paths made him more than prepared to dive head-first into the world of action movies.
Beginning with a minor role in 1995’s “Mortal Kombat”, Dom has lent his immense talents as a martial artist and fight choreographer to such hits as Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”, and Yuen Woo-ping’s “True Legend”, along with his many collaborations with stunt veteran Jesse Johnson, which include “The Honourable”, “Pit Fighter”, “Triple Threat”, and the upcoming “Legion Maxx”. Through it all, Dom has firmly adhered to the warrior code and strict ethics that has continued on through his service in the Legion and life-long dedication to martial arts.
Today, Dom sits down with KFK to share his story, including his beginnings in martial arts, his time in the French Foreign Legion, experiences in the film industry, as well as a look at what fans can expect from “Legion Maxx”!
Hello Dominique, welcome to Kung Fu Kingdom! It’s great to connect, how are you?
Hi Brad, I’m doing great, thanks.
Excellent. Well, before we dive in, just to get your views briefly, what do you think of the name Kung Fu Kingdom (KFK) and what do you think of our mission to inspire 100 million people across the planet to get into martial arts?
I like the name. It’s very catchy and most people recognize what Kung Fu means. I’ve enjoyed reading your interviews and I like what you guys are doing. It’s very cool, wonderful to see passion like that. The mission is a great endeavor since martial arts can be practiced all over the world. Publications like Kung Fu Kingdom bring people together as a community and friends whether you are rich or not, it doesn’t matter at all. Neither race nor religion matter for practicing martial arts.
Beginnings & influences in martial arts
Thanks, that’s exactly the message we aim to spread. Okay, let’s kick off with your beginnings in martial arts. when did you first start training and what different disciplines have you trained in?
My journey with martial arts began with practicing judo at age four as a hyperactive kid. At age eight, I started training at a different dojo in traditional judo which focused on Newaza and throwing.
They also had classes in freestyle Greco Roman Wrestling which I began training and competing in. At age nine, I began training in karate and a few years later, I began training at SGF Sint-Truiden and Topkick Hasselt, practicing many styles like Dutch kickboxing, combat sambo, savate and Muay Thai. With my local teams, I often went to take some seminars at places like Chakuriki gym in Holland on the weekends.
I liked full contact fighting, but missed the karate budo spirit in combat sports. After becoming a class junior fighter and champion, I discovered Sankukai karate and then the Kundokan Karate Budo groups. The karate groups practiced full contact fighting and but also taught the meaning of Budo Karate.
Excellent. You’ve gone into quite an eclectic martial arts mix! So, which three martial artists would you credit as having inspired and influenced you the most?
I would say Miyamoto Musashi and two of my Karate senseis, Mikio and Gomyo Hiroshi.
On being in the French Foreign Legion & fighting in Thailand
You spent some time in the French Foreign Legion; what are some your most memorable experiences with them?
I decided to join the French Foreign Legion after I got badly injured in a car accident. It damaged my left hip and broke my leg in different places, and my doctors told me that I would not be able to compete in martial arts anymore. I became suicidal and depressed for a while. Around the time, I read the “The Book of Five Rings” (Go Rin no Sho) by Miyamoto Musashi and other books about war and warriors. I also stumbled onto a book about the French Foreign Legion and read the The Battle of Camarón story about Captain Jean Danjou. Those warriors spoke to my soul and I realized that I could live the life of a modern-day samurai in a place like the Legion. Before I knew it, I was hobbling along on my limpy leg in basic training.
The legion instructors did not think that I would make it, but respected my tenacity. At the end of basic training, I finished in the top five, which meant I could pick my posting of which regiment I wanted to go to. The other guys ahead of me were all elite soldiers in different countries before coming to the Legion. I decided on the 2 REP, the only Airborne Para Commando and special forces trained regiment in the Legion. The 2 REP was like an MMA camp for soldiering since most of its men served with elite, para or special forces units in their countries before coming here.
That’s quite a way to transform a misfortune into something constructive. On that note, after leaving the Legion, you also competed professionally in Burma, along with participating in a few underground fights. What interesting stories can you relate about your professional fighting career?
After the Legion, I went home to Belgium for a few weeks, but I felt like a stranger in my own country. I could not relate to anyone anymore. So when a friend from the Legion called me for a job, I became an independent soldier in Yugoslavia, Africa and Burma. After getting shot on one of the independent jobs, I thought that it was time to stop living by the sword. I ended up moving to Thailand where I decided to live in a Muay Thai boxing camp.
Thailand was a familiar place for me since I had been there fighting in a Lethwei Burmese Boxing match on my first leave from the 2 REP. I met Stéphane Nikiéma, a French Thai boxing champion who was training at the Yoki Gym in Bangkok. I asked him if he knew any good boxing camps in a more rural area away from the city.
Bangkok was too polluted and noisy for me. He told me about the Samasit Boxing Camp in the north and about a French bar owner named Daniel, a fight promoter. Daniel took me to the Samasit camp the same day I got there and introduced me to the camp’s owner. That same day, I sparred crazy hard with some tough Thai boxers back-to-back and they accepted me. Back then, very few foreigners were fighting in Thailand and fewer were living in boxing camps and fighting there.
My training partners were Noi, Wonderboy, Olando, Ramnamoen and Superleck, the legendary Thai champion who beat Ramon Dekkers in his prime. The living conditions were primal, like one bucket to shower with and another bucket to wash yourself after using the toilet, and the toilet was just a hole in the ground. You were also sleeping with seven other men in a small room with a mosquito net during the brutal hot Thai summer without air conditioning. After I won some fights in local areas, I beat Sedack who was the North Thai champion. From then on, promoters and scouts kept coming to my camp and they wanted to sign me. I had no interest in that or fighting in big stadiums. I liked being able to pack up and leave, having no attachments living like a modern-day Ronin.
Nomad warrior style…Moving forward to your work in movies, your first break in the film industry was in 1995’s “Mortal Kombat”, where you play a fighting monk who gets frozen by Sub-Zero. What memorable stories can you relate about working on “Mortal Kombat”?
I was new to LA and working as a bouncer at a really rundown nightclub called The Gate. I was also working for Benny The Jet as a sparring partner for his top fighters. One day, a casting lady came by the Jet Center and asked me to come in to read for a role.
It was my first job in the movie industry where I met Jesse V. Johnson on “Mortal Kombat”. We hit it off right away.
On “Gangs of New York” with Martin Scorsese
It’s definitely a very memorable scene in the film. You also appeared in and served as fight choreographer for Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”. What memorable stories can you relate about making the film with Mr. Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Daniel Day-Lewis. Did they undergo any training for the film?
The legendary action director Vic Armstrong hired me to train Leo, Daniel and some other actors for the film. I had worked with Mr. Armstrong’s brother, Andy, on a Tim Burton Timex commercial campaign. After training Leo in Catch Wrestling, I was asked to fly to New York to meet with Martin Scorsese. Martin and Daniel liked the tapes that I had put together with many old fighting styles and cool choreography for the film and they asked me to become the coordinator for the fights. Leo liked watching all type of combat sports, and Daniel was more into boxing and trained pretty seriously.
That’s so interesting, Vic’s a true legend. Moving on, one of your first films was 2002’s “The Honourable”, which was directed by Jesse Johnson. What stories can you share about making the film with Jesse?
After I came back to LA from “Gangs of New York”, I got many offers to coordinate for big films but nothing was interesting enough for me and I decided to give acting a try. After taking acting classes and many auditions later, I made the decision to do my own film with Jesse with the money I had saved up from independent soldiering. The movie was originally called “The Doorman”, but we later re-cut the movie and changed its title to “The Honorable”.
On “Pit Fighter”
Speaking of Jesse, you later appeared in 2005’s “Pit Fighter”, which he also directed. What behind-the-scenes stories can you relate about making the film with Jesse, stuntman Andre “Chyna” McCoy, Steven Bauer of “Scarface” fame, and the then-unknown Scott Adkins?
“Pit Fighter” was the first studio film I starred in. It was low budget but did very well for Fox, and Spike TV wanted to do a series about the movie. Chyna and Steven Bauer were cool to work with. Chyna has been always supportive of our film projects. Steven taught me a lot of acting tips on set. I didn’t get to talk much with Scott, but we are always friendly and respectful to each other. I guess we are both quiet people on set. Many martial artists like us visualize their moves before we film them many times in head. Since we are talking about Scott, I recently saw his latest film “Avengement” with Jesse and I was blown away by his performance as an actor. He reminded me of Tom Hardy in “Bronson”. Brilliant!
On his book: “Iron Circle: The True Life Story of Dominiquie Vandenberg”
Indeed “Avengement” is off the hook and Scott as ‘Cain’ does a cracking job on it! On that note, you also published an autobiography, “Iron Circle: The True Life Story of Dominiquie Vandenberg”. What can you share about how your book came about?
I wasn’t really interested in writing an autobiography, there are too many things that I could not talk about really unless I wanted to look over my shoulder for the rest of my life. My friend, Rick, and I just finished writing a script around the time, and he encouraged me to do it. We originally had a subtitle “Inspired by the life story of Dominiquie Vandenberg”, so we could get away without mentioning details or using real names and places. After we turned the first draft to the publisher, they brought other writers to clean it up and they took a lot of liberties to make it out like a Hollywood B-movie. Thank God, they did not change anything about the Legion stories.
On “True Legend” with Yuen Woo-ping & David Carradine
Intriguing. You also appeared as a fighter in the climax of 2010’s “True Legend”. What fond memories can you share about making the film with Yuen Woo-ping, Vincent Zhao, and the late David Carradine?
It was cool to work and have a drink with David Carradine. I watched him in the “Kung Fu” series when I was a child. While in China, I actually got very sick with pneumonia but it was still fun looking back on it regardless. I saw Vincent only once on set, since his stunt doubles were working with us most of the time on the fight scene I was in. I remember Woo-ping controlled the set like a general and smoked like a chimney while directing.
I see. Moving ahead, you also recently appeared in the martial arts ensemble film “Triple Threat”. How was your experience making the film with Jesse and its massive martial arts ensemble?
Jesse and I had already began filming a part of “Legion Maxx” when he got “Triple Threat”. Jesse asked me to come and play a small part. I worked mostly with Daniel and Ron Smoorenburg on the set. Both of them are really decent guys and consummate professionals with no ego. It was cool to see Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais fighting Scott and showing different styles of martial arts. It was awesome to see Jesse direct all these guys. I was super excited for Jesse to do this project as a close friend. Overall, Thailand was a humbling experience.
On his upcoming movie: “Legion Maxx”
Cool. You’ll soon be seen in the upcoming “Legion Maxx”, which re-teams you with Jesse Johnson. How was your experience of making it and what can you share about the film and its concept of a warrior priest?
I created the Maxx character originally in a comic book called “Vive La Mort”. I pitched it at Magic Leap Studios, an AR/VR studio company that I was working with. They were originally looking for content for comic books and/or games. But when Google, Alibaba and other major companies began investing money into Magic Leap, the content became very politically correct and the “Vive La Mort” project was put aside because of the hyper violence. So I decided to take the Maxx character and build an independent film story around him. At this point, I had probably spent about two and a half years working with a writer and a director, debating over three different scripts and two filming locations. I had to call it off and regroup our production team from the beginning.
Meanwhile, Jesse’s schedule became available for directing a film. He and I have worked for many years together, so the process of pre-production went very quickly and smoothly.
Interesting backstory. So, what was the most challenging fight scene in the film?
There were a few. One in particular was a scene where Maxx kills a bunch of bad guys inside an SUV with guns and shotguns going off inside the small confined space. The knife fight scene by the river was also challenging because we had to race against the sunset. We filmed the scene in just thirty minutes or so which is unheard of. When we film an independent action film, we always have to fight with time. Time is money and we really had to watch ourselves using time to shoot each fight scene. As a martial artist, I want to perfect all the physical performances and as an action film director, Jesse wants to capture the moment superbly. Luke LaFontaine and Malay Kim really had my and Jesse’s back like a great team of soldiers.
Really, the whole film was challenging because of the budget and time constraints we had. I honestly think that Jesse is one of the very few directors out there right now who could pull it off with those conditions. He has years’ of experience of making independent films and understood the importance of preparation. We decided to cast professional actors rather than recognizable entertainers so we could appeal to audiences with a solid story and realistic brutal action. The great performances of Carmen Argenziano (the older priest) and Louis Mandylor (LeClerc) were very gracious in letting me shine. For the role of Maxx, I studied Toshiro Mifune’s body language. I also watched Tatsuya Nakadai’s strange stances and body stillness in “The Sword of Doom”, and I asked Jesse to film the movie like a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. The dust ended up being the most expensive special effect we spent money on. (Laughs)
A multi-layered process including a real battle against the elements, yet it turned out really well! Were there any injuries or mishaps that occurred whilst filming?
Nothing bad that I can remember. Maybe some bruises and some jammed guns, but we were lucky there were no significant injuries.
Dominiquie’s Top 5 martial-arts films
Well, on that note, what are Dominiquie Vandenberg’s Top 5 favourite martial-arts movies?
Wow, that’s a hard one! My all-time favourite movies are “Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo”, both directed by Akira Kurosawa. But Kihachi Okamoto’s “The Sword of Doom” and Masaki Kobayashi’s “Harakiri” are also some of my favourites. I loved a lot of the old Japanese Samurai films, they have a sophisticated subtleness. I also really like “Enter the Dragon” and “A Force of One”.
Fun & leisure
Stylish tastes. Moving into fun and leisure now, what’s one geeky or peculiar thing that people don’t know about you?
I really love reading and writing poetry. It all began from reading Haiku poetry. Later on when I was in the Legion, I read Alan Seeger’s poetry. He was a legionnaire that died in World War I. His most famous poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” was JFK’s favorite poem and is now used in many video games. It gives a chilling feel when you hear it or read it out loud. Jesse let me put one of my poems in the end credits of “Savage Dog”. Many more can be found on YouTube.
I also have a deep connection with dogs and animals in general. I prefer their company over most humans. When I first came to LA, I got myself a dog so I could politely decline invitations from merc friends. I had a reason to stay home, because my doggie needed me.
Quite an insight. So, if you could be a superhero, who would you be and what superpower would you most like to have?
I liked Spider-Man a lot when I was a kid, but I was also attracted to Batman’s dark side in the original comics. As a superpower, I would like the ability to prevent wars or cure young kids from cancer. That would be awesome.
Next projects & message for KFK readers…
Certainly would! So, what other projects do you have in the works following the release of “Legion Maxx”?
My hope is that people really enjoy “Legion Maxx”, and we’re able to make it into a franchise or a TV show. I also would like to produce the “Forever War”, it’s the story of a Holocaust survivor who joins the Legion to hunt down the Nazi that killed his family. I also hope to publish a warrior’s poetry book in the future.
Keep us posted on those. So, what warrior-wisdom quote or philosophy has helped you become who you are today?
“No warrior should be willing to die with his weapons by his side, without having made use of his tools to the fullest of his capability.”
Tools for thought…Well, as we prepare to wrap up now Dom, what special message would you like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom readers and your fans around the world right now?
If you have a dream, never give up on it! You only have this life once.
Well said. Thank you so much for the privilege of speaking today Dom, it’s been a real pleasure to get to know you so much better. We wish you all the best of success with “Legion Maxx”, and look forward to seeing your other upcoming action projects in 2019!
Thank you Brad, I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with Kung Fu Kingdom!