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NEW YORK — Warner Bros. has greenlit the fourth installment of its action franchise “Lethal Weapon” for a Jan. 8 start, and hired top Asian action star Jet Li to make his American debut in the role of a Chinese lethal weapon who squares off against Mel Gibson’s character.

Though WB had been proceeding on a breakneck course to get the film in production in early 1998 and in theaters by mid-July, everything was contingent upon director Richard Donner and producer Joel Silver getting a script that would be approved by Gibson and Donner.

Clutch save

Screenwriter Channing Gibson (no relation to Mel) came through in the clutch, and turned out a script they’ll start shooting throughout L.A. and on the Warner Bros. lot just after the New Year. It’s intended to provides a boon to a studio in great need of a blockbuster.

Hiring Li was the brainstorm of WB president Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who wanted a villain with some international box office punch for a movie series that has played well abroad. Though unknown on these shores, Li is a kung fu expert and star of 25 Asian action films. He’s emerged as the biggest Asian film star after Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat.

Li has played the hero in every one of his films, and “Lethal” will mark the first time he puts his fists and feet in the service of evil.

Li joins the returning “Lethal” force of Gibson, Danny Glover, Rene Russo and Joe Pesci. Chris Rock also stars.

Li is repped by ICM’s Steve Chasman and Rowena Li of Fortune Media.

While the notion of putting a big-budget blockbuster film into theaters just six months after beginning principal photography seems daunting, sources said that the “Lethal” gang did it in a similar fashion with the second and third installments of the film, and they’re confident they can pull it off.