Morgan to pen race pic as action moves to Tokyo

Looking to fill in its 2005 summer slate, Universal Pictures is hitting the gas on a third installment of “The Fast and the Furious.”

Vin Diesel is in talks to return to the franchise after skipping sequel “2 Fast 2 Furious,” while the studio is not currently planning to have Paul Walker, a star of both previous incarnations, return for the third outing.

Scribe Chris Morgan has been hired to pen a script. His concept picks up Diesel’s character, Dominic Torretto, where he was left off at the end of the first “Fast,” a fugitive of the law hiding out in Mexico.

Action quickly moves to Tokyo, the current Mecca of street racing, where Torretto tries to bail out a friend in trouble with gangsters.

A U rep confirmed that the studio is developing “Fast 3″ as a Diesel vehicle but said there is no deal in place yet. Diesel’s rep said he hopes to return for “Fast 3″ but is waiting to see a script before committing.

Morgan’s previous credits include “Cellular” for New Line. He did some rewrite duty on Columbia’s “S.W.A.T.”

The return of Diesel would be a bid to return excitement to a franchise that may otherwise be getting long in the tooth.

Talks for Diesel to appear in “2 Fast” fell apart in 2002, reportedly when U balked at his $20 million salary demand (Daily Variety, May 7, 2002).

But the studio stayed in business with the action star, producing sci-fier “The Chronicles of Riddick,” which will unspool in June. U’s confidence in Diesel’s “Riddick” perf is said to be what encouraged the studio to seek his return for “Fast 3.”

Overseeing for U are vice chair Scott Stuber, exec VP Holly Bario and exec Jeff Kirschenbaum. Neal Moritz of Original Film is producing with his exec Amanda Cohen overseeing.

If Diesel inks a deal (his reps declined comment), it raises the question of whether Rob Cohen, who directed Diesel in both the original “Fast and Furious” and actioner “XXX,” might return as well. Cohen’s reps said the helmer was not in talks with U.

John Singleton helmed “2 Fast” after Cohen dropped out, the latter saying he would direct only if Diesel was part of the package.

Produced on a $38 million budget, the first “Fast” was an unequivocal hit, grossing $144 million domestically and $207 million worldwide. The budget on “2 Fast” doubled to $76 million, but the pic still did a better than respectable $127 million in the U.S, $234 million worldwide.

Even factoring in the pricey Diesel, U is aiming to keep the “Fast 3″ budget in line with the series’ second pic.

Though all plans now are for Diesel to return, the history of how “2 Fast 2 Furious” came together signals that U is willing to take hairpin turns in the development of the franchise.

U assigned two scripts for “2 Fast,” one that included Diesel’s character, to Gary Scott Thompson, who penned the original, and one to scribe team Michael Brandt and Derek Haas.

Their script, which was ultimately produced, left Diesel out and focused on Walker’s character Brian O’Conner, who had moved on to Miami and is reluctantly paired with a new partner, played by Tyrese. In Morgan’s “Fast 3″ concept, the O’Conner character is left out entirely.

Pic would be a tentpole for U’s summer 2005 sked, which is still largely blank. Studio’s big pic for next year, Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” is currently aimed for a holiday release. “Spy Hunter,” the vidgame adaptation starring Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, is on track for a June start and a summer 2005 release.

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