Matthew McConaughey is turning from bank robber to daredevil. McConaughey, star of “The Newton Boys,” is near a deal to play motorcyclist Evel Knievel in “Pure Evel,” the Universal biopic scripted by John Logan and to be directed by Marco Brambilla. McConaughey will also come aboard in a producing capacity.

McConaughey, who’s currently pulling down about $10 million a pic, is mulling several offers for his next project. But sources said that he’s thisclose to a deal that would have him playing Knievel, either later in the year or in early 1999. McConaughey has already met Knievel and is revved up to play him.

Brambilla, who last directed “Excess Baggage,” has been working on the Knievel pic since 1996, after selling it to the studio with a reel of Knievel’s best-known jumps. They brought in hot scripter Logan (who penned “RKO 281” and Oliver Stone’s football project, which is awaiting a greenlight at Warner Bros.).

“Pure Evel” is not only being pegged to Knievel’s literally bone-crushing cycle stunts, but is framed around how he became the symbol of the American dream in the ’70s.

Hollywood made several attempts to cash in on Evel-mania: George Hamilton starred in a 1972 biopic, and Knievel played himself in the 1977 “Viva Knievel!”

McConaughey is repped by CAA.

HORNING IN ON A RECORD PAYDAY?: Forget the two Oscars he won for the music to “Titanic.” James Horner is creating more of a buzz for a “Titanic” soundtrack deal that has the composer homing in on a record payday that should be well north of $20 million.

Though the exact numbers are harder to bring to the surface than the actual Titanic, insiders familiar with the deal say that it breaks down this way: Horner got an upfront scoring fee of around $800,000. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. He also gets 13 prorated royalty points, claiming royalty payments on the 14 instrumental tracks on the 15-cut soundtrack.

On the Celine Dion hit “My Heart Will Go On,” he shares publishing and songwriting fees with Will Jennings, who wrote the words to the Oscar-winning song, for which Horner wrote the music. Sources said that between royalty payments and mechanical publishing payments, Horner will earn $1.20 per album — a rate typically earned by platinum-selling superstar artists. And that’s a conservative estimate.

The soundtrack has sold 18 million units worldwide for Sony Classical/Sony Music, and it’s projected to do at least 23 million.

This puts Horner over the $20 million mark, and that doesn’t even include an estimated $2 million he’ll earn from overseas exploitation and BMI payments.

He gets further publishing revenue for the song, which appears on Dion’s album “Let’s Talk About Love,” which has sold north of 18 million units worldwide. That could mean another $3 million or more.

Never before has a composer done so well on one soundtrack. Other top-selling soundtracks, like the 16 million album-selling “The Bodyguard,” are collections of pop songs, with payments distributed to a wide number of participants. Though driven by one runaway hit song, “Titanic” is an instrumental record.

Horner’s agent, Michael Gorfaine (the firm also reps Jennings), was out of the country and couldn’t be reached.

HUNT HITS GOTHAM STAGE: The Lincoln Center run of the Nicholas Hytner-directed Shakespeare play “Twelfth Night” already had added luster once Helen Hunt won the Oscar. Now, “Singles” star Kyra Sedgwick has agreed to play Olivia alongside Hunt’s Viola and Paul Rudd’s Orsino.

Hunt, who had been in the hunt for the stage role for the past month (Daily Variety, March 6), just turned away numerous movie offers to commit to a July 16-Aug. 30 run at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. The star of “As Good As It Gets” will return to “Mad About You” and take a big movie in January.

Sedgwick, whose next pic is the indie “Montana,” is repped by ICM’s Steve Dontanville and managed by Suzan Bymel and Evelyn O’Neill.

PICS COME BACK TO LIFE: The good thing about strong projects is that even when they fall apart, they can come back together again. That’s happened to numerous recent development projects that at one time appeared to be in trouble and are now regaining lost steam.

First, the competition’s back on over Janis Joplin biopics. Dish hears Lakeshore Entertainment is in pretty serious talks with its “200 Cigarettes” star Courtney Love to play the troubled singer for director Stephen Gyllenhaal. Melissa Etheridge was long poised to make her acting debut with director Marc Rocco, who exited. Etheridge has been waiting for the film to solidify and her participation is still a possibility.

The rival Joplin project, formerly set up at TriStar, is resurfacing with indie financing. Nancy Savoca is still ready to direct Lili Taylor, and sources said Taylor’s leaning on pal Johnny Depp to play Joplin’s fiance.

Another project getting a new lease on life is “Time and Again,” the Jack Finney time-travel novel. Long a pet project of Robert Redford, it was laid aside when he did “The Horse Whisperer.” Now, he’s rekindling it, with Richard LaGravenese scripting. Redford hopes to direct and star in the mystery/thriller.

Yet another project seeming to gain steam is the Muhammad Ali biopic produced by Jon Peters and Columbia. Will Smith has long been attached to play the prolific puncher, and word is building that director Ron Howard might follow it after “Ed TV.” The studio has “Nixon” scribes Stephen J. Rivele and Chris Wilkinson at work.