Weisz leaving lucrative franchise

Brendan Fraser has closed a rich deal to return in “The Mummy 3,” but Rachel Weisz is not coming back.

Rob Cohen will direct the pic, which is expected to begin production late in the summer. It will be set in China and will introduce Jet Li as a villain.

Universal is planning a summer 2008 release; franchise has earned more than $830 million worldwide. “The Mummy” bowed in 1999 and “The Mummy Returns” in 2001.

Weisz has won an Oscar and had a baby since the last installment, has dropped out of talks to reprise her role. She has several other projects in the offing, including “The Brothers Bloom” and Phillip Noyce’s Outback drama “Dirt Music,” set to begin shooting in August.

Script is by “Smallville” creators Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, who will do another pass that will factor in the absence of Weisz. Universal is holding up a greenlight pending a final rewrite, but a late summer start date is still expected.

Fraser, who previously toplined “George of the Jungle,” has proven a reliable franchise performer. Word has it he’s made a top-of-the-food-chain money deal for “The Mummy 3,” the first film in the series that won’t be directed by Stephen Sommers.

Sean Daniel, Jim Jacks, Sommers and his shingle partner Bob Ducsay are producing.

Fraser is also starring in two New Line-distributed films with tentpole aspirations: “Journey 3D,” an adaptation of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” that Walden Media and New Line are producing, and “Inkheart,” the Iain Softley-directed adaptation of the Cornelia Funke fantasy novel. New Line is eyeing 2008 releases for both pics, which could lead to a trio of event-sized Fraser films.

Fraser’s repped by WMA.

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