Warner Bros. brass, legendary for prizing their private jets, have engendered a last-minute change in destination for action star Jet Li. Scheduled to make the Universal film “The Art of War,” his followup to the upcoming “Lethal Weapon 4,” Warners enforced an option it held on Jet, and quickly locked him into a pay-or-play deal worth just under $3 million to star in “Romeo Must Die,” which could be described as Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” as told by Joel Silver.
WB effectively grounded rival Universal’s Jet vehicle after test screenings of “Lethal Weapon 4” indicated that audiences went wild for the film’s high-kicking villain, a five-time national martial arts champ of China. WB searched its action script artillery and came up with “Romeo,” a script by Mitch Kapner originally conceived for a Caucasian star involving the Italian mob and Japan’s Yakuza.
The script is being redrafted under Silver’s supervision, with Jet playing a businessman with ties to the Chinese and Italian mobs who’s asked to broker peace between the warring groups in New York City. That mission leads him to fall in love with the Italian don’s daughter, which brings about all sorts of complications that enable Jet to do some heavy-duty clock-cleaning.
Jet, whose 25 Asian films have established him as a rival to Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat in the foreign marketplace, could still wind up starring in the U pic next year, as Warner Bros. has pledged to hire a director quickly so it can get his next film into production before year’s end.
Jet is repped by ICM’s Steve Chasman and attorneys Jake Bloom and David Feldman.
‘HOLY’ MAN ON INDIE MISSION: One thing you’ve got to say about Rob Perez is that he’s a young man of conviction. Perez, a screenwriter in his early 20s, just closed a deal for his darkly comic spec script “Holy Guy” that gets him an upfront payment of $10,000 for an indie film that will be directed by former standup comic David Steinberg. While that check was enough to get Perez to quit his job as driver for British actor Joe Maher, it’s well short of the offer he turned down: $70,000 against nearly $300,000 from Fox, which chased the script for Harold Ramis.
“Holy Guy” is about the prototypically hollow producer who, after seeing his father pass away wearing a facial expression that indicates he’s hellbound, tries to alter his own course by finding God. He hires the holiest person he knows, a rabbi, to audition the seven major religions to see which wears best on him. But his deity-directed journey is detoured by his propensity to alienate.
The scribe feared a major studio would want to redeem the producer by the closing credits, and when Steinberg and producer Michael London pledged to honor the dark spirit of the script and its ending, they got the deal.
Perez’s cynicism might have been honed during his stint as a production assistant for the ultra-cynical “The Larry Sanders Show.” Perez found himself abruptly canned when the show’s star, Garry Shandling, thought Perez was hitting on his girlfriend.
That turn of events proved fortuitous; Perez wrote a spec “Sanders” episode based on his firing, and even though it was rejected, it won him an agent. Perez, who wrote his first script now hopes to finish and sell his followup script before the money runs out. He’s repped by Joan Scott and Marti Blumenthal of Writers & Artists.
PRIMETIME “DEAD?”: With both “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Halloween” both showing renewed vigor, maybe it’s time for a primetime revival of the slow-footed, flesh-chewing zombies of “Night of the Living Dead.”
Dish hears that Granada TV is in exploratory talks with George Romero to adapt into a series his creepy black-&-white 1968 horror classic about a blast of radiation from a space rocket that re-animates corpses into a force of hungry invaders. Aside from being one of the most profitable films of all time, the film spawned sequels and a 1990 remake, which Romero himself directed.
STELLAR ‘STELLA’ SPURS MOVE: Fox’s streak of turning adult-themed films about black characters into hits with “Waiting to Exhale” and “Soul Food” seems poised to continue with “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” the pic directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan that’s based on the Terry McMillan novel.
The film, originally skedded to be released in late September, is on the verge of being moved to an Aug. 12 berth, sources said. The move comes after two unexpectedly high test screenings of the director’s cut. Fox sees “Stella” as an opportunity to provide an alternative to summer action.
The pic, produced by Deborah Schindler, stars Angela Bassett, Whoopi Goldberg and newcomer Taye Diggs.
KINNEY PACTS PAIR: Terry Kinney, a star of HBO’s “Oz,” has landed two feature leads during his series hiatus period. He’ll star opposite Maura Tierney and Adrien Brody in “Oxygen,” written and directed by Richard Shepard. He plays the husband of Tierney, who’s out to track a serial killer. From there Kinney, a Steppenwolf Theatre founder, moves to “The Young Girl and the Monsoon,” an indie written and directed by James Ryan, who originated it as a play. Kinney plays a single father struggling with life and raising a 13-year-old daughter.
Kinney’s repped by Gersh’s Larry Taube and just signed for management with InHouse Entertainment’s Brian Swardstrom and Bonnie Bernstein.