Tucker and gang return for another run

The next “Rush Hour” is finally in the fast lane.

Chris Tucker, who has made only “Rush Hour” films since 1998, is expected to sign a two-picture, $40 million contract at New Line, which has been trying extremely hard to get the third installment of the buddy pic off the ground.

Tucker’s signature, to be delivered after a meeting today with director Brett Ratner and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson, will put “Rush Hour 3″ on track for a late fall start in Los Angeles and Paris.

Tucker’s involvement also activates a near-$20 million payday for Jackie Chan and a $7.5 million payday for director Ratner. It essentially greenlights a film that will cost around $100 million and will anchor New Line’s 2006 summer.

Nathanson, who wrote “Rush Hour 2″ and just finished “Indiana Jones 4,” will begin writing the sequel script as soon as Tucker signs. Nathanson pitched his vision to all of the principals weeks ago.

Everybody sparked to his plan and signed their megabuck contracts — except Tucker, the lone “Rush Hour” participant who was in no rush. He has in fact been so elusive that Ratner had begun talks to direct a “Creature of the Black Lagoon” remake at Universal.

After getting under $2 million for the original, Tucker increased his salary tenfold for the sequel, released in 2001. The original grossed $144 million domestically and $247 million worldwide, while the sequel grossed $226 million domestically and $329 million worldwide.

Rather than look for more big paydays, the Atlanta-based Tucker has steadily turned down every film offered him. He has chosen to busy himself instead with pursuits that range from standup comedy to standing up for his pal Michael Jackson through the singer’s court battle. He has also traveled the globe, hung with Bono and President Bill Clinton in Africa, and has become a favored houseguest of Jordan’s King Abdullah.

New Line production president Toby Emmerich agreed long ago to make a second $20 million-against-20% payday commitment to Tucker, thinking it might lead to another screen turn. Tucker has toyed with the idea of sequelizing another Ratner-directed comedy, “Money Talks.”

At this point, Emmerich and his bosses will be doing cartwheels just to get Tucker back for “Rush Hour 3,” a pic that is produced by Arthur Sarkissian, Roger Birnbaum, John Glickman and Jay Stern. All he has to do is sign the contract.

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