Steven Seagal has signed a pay-or-play deal with Warner Bros. to star in “Exit Wounds,” an action drama to be produced by Joel Silver and directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak, the tandem behind the Jet Li hit “Romeo Must Die.”

The deal marks the first film Seagal will do for WB since 1997, when he exited after “Fire Down Below,” his seventh at the studio that transformed him from Mike Ovitz’s aikido instructor to a highly bankable action star. That run began in 1988 with “Above the Law” and spanned the seven films and a salary that rose to $15 million for “Under Siege II.”

Seagal’s WB deal ended as his grosses waned. The problem? He gained weight, dressed more like the Lone Ranger’s sidekick than an action hero, and films that feigned serious themes like cleaning up the environment didn’t mesh with audiences interested in watching him clean the clocks of bad guys.

WB is determined to help him win them back, and his homecoming project was chosen by Silver and WB president of worldwide motion pictures Lorenzo di Bonaventura as being reminiscent of his early successes like “Above the Law.”

“We believe there is a tremendous reservoir of good will toward Steven, which we can access if we put him in a movie that represents him the way the public wants to see him,” said di Bonaventura, who as production exec shepherded Seagal’s early WB hits. “We paired him with Joel Silver, who has unparalleled success in this genre and who we thought would deliver the kind of movie people want to see Steven in.”

Silver, who has been on an action hot streak with “The Matrix” and “Romeo Must Die,” previously worked with Seagal when he cameoed in “Executive Decision.” Seagal made more upfront for that month of work than he will for “Exit Wounds,” but Silver feels confident that the tough guy can again flourish.

“People are interested in these kinds of films again, the hard-edged action film geared toward a young male audience,””said Silver. “Research has told us that the audience is still there for Steven. ‘The Matrix’ raised the bar, and so the challenge is to reinvent the genre, so that it feels cool, like ‘Romeo Must Die’ feels cool.”

The Seagal reclamation effort began in January, when WB topper Alan Horn, di Bonaventura and Silver hatched a plan with Seagal, his ICM agents and Phil Goldfine (who runs Seagal’s company) to bring the actor back into the studio fold. It was contingent on Seagal shedding weight, and he’s down about 30 pounds already, with another three months to return to early-career physical form before shooting begins. “Exit Wounds” is an Ed Horowitz/Rich d’Ovidio-scripted adaptation of a 1990 novel by John Westermann about a cop stuck in an inner-city precinct who uncovers corruption.

“It’s a cool urban movie, with a precinct feel to it, like a Wambaugh novel,” Silver said. “It’s Steven in a cop uniform, in the kind of action picture people loved him in, and one that costs $25 million, the same cost of ‘Romeo.’ There is a big upside for both Steven and the studio.”

QUAID JOINS ‘TRAFFIC’ JAM: Dennis Quaid has joined Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones in “Traffic,” the Steve Gaghan-scripted film about the narcotics biz which is being directed by Steven Soderbergh for USA Films, with Laura Bickford producing. Quaid will play the lawyer counseling Zeta-Jones, who’s left to run a drug empire when her husband is carted off to prison. Quaid, who last starred in “Any Given Sunday” and “Savior,” is repped by George Freeman at William Morris.

‘GALILEO’ TO GRANADA U.K.: Dava Sobel is the rare author who has managed to have two bestsellers twice sold for the screen simultaneously — one as a documentary, the other as a dramatized adaptation. Sobel’s last book, “Longitude” became the docu “Lost at Sea: The Story of Longitude,” followed by a four-hour Granada miniseries that starred Michael Gambon and Jeremy Irons.

Now, Sobel’s new book, “Galileo’s Daughter,” has been double-dealt in the same manner. Just like last time, docu rights went to Green Umbrella/WGBH, and dramatization rights have been sold to Granada. The book is a bio of Galileo, helped by the discovery of letters that were in the possession of his illegitimate daughter, a cloistered nun. The deal was made by WMA’s Bill Contardi with Gotham lit agent Michael Carlisle.

DOWNEY EYES EARLY RELEASE: Robert Downey Jr., who isn’t slated to be paroled for cocaine possession until late fall, might get an earlier reprieve. His attorneys have an appeal pending that could spring him shortly.

The appeal challenges the original three-year state prison sentence for possession of 1-1/2 grams of coke, and errors the attorneys feel were made by the trial court in giving a harsher sentence than was warranted to make an example of the actor after he twice missed mandated drug tests during his three-year probation.

Essentially, the attorneys argue that the judge did not give Downey enough time credited to his sentence. They’ve filed with California Supreme Court seeking bail pending his appeal, maintaining that due to the trial court’s sentencing errors and omissions, Downey’s parole date should have been Feb. 9 of this year instead of the current date of Nov. 2. Downey, whose case is being pressed by Robert J. Waters and Ross A. Nabatoff, is expected to move into a facility in hopes that he can lick his substance abuse problem once and for all. He certainly hasn’t been forgotten, starring in “Wonder Boys” and upcoming “Black & White.” Waters said a response by the attorney general could come before week’s end, which starts the process to free Downey.

DEAD CAT SPARKS CAREER STRETCH: Steve Guttenberg is so bullish on the movie prospects of the 1975 James Kirkwood-scripted Broadway hit “P.S. Your Cat Is Dead” that he has not only optioned the play for his PlainEdge Prods. banner, he’s putting up most of the financing, with plans to make his directorial debut this May from a script he wrote with Jeffrey Korn.

Guttenberg said the play is “the story of two desperate men thrown together one desperate New Year’s Eve when their lives have crumbled, willing to kill each other if they don’t discover first that each is the other’s only salvation.” Guttenberg will play one of the men. He actually wrote the script before he had rights to the play, a deal which was just sealed by WMA, which reps the Kirkwood estate, and Guttenberg’s attorney Keith Fleer. Guttenberg will produce with Kyle Clark, with Michael Bell co-producing and Jennifer Esquivel as associate producer.

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