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New master for mutants

Ratner will helm 'X3'

Twentieth Century Fox and Marvel Entertainment set Brett Ratner on Friday night to replace Matthew Vaughn as the director of “X3,” the third installment of the “X-Men” franchise.

Hiring keeps the film on track for an August start date and a Memorial Day weekend 2006 opening date.

Vaughn dropped out less than a week ago. Official reason was that the “Layer Cake” director didn’t want to uproot his family, but it appears the exit followed his growing apprehension about taking on such a large assignment in his second outing.

A comicbook enthusiast, Ratner was among the helmers considered to direct the first “X-Men”; the job went to Bryan Singer.

Ratner then spent a full year developing “Superman Returns,” the film that ultimately prompted Singer to drop out of directing “X3.”

Fox had also hoped to put Ratner to work on “Josiah’s Canon,” a heist movie that was all but ready to shoot when star Sean Connery announced he was dropping out.

Fox’s hiring of Ratner also means that “Rush Hour 3” will most certainly miss New Line’s projected fall start and summer 2006 release dates. Ratner directed the first two pics in that series and seemed certain to make the third, but Chris Tucker’s unwillingness to sign his $20 million deal in timely fashion scotched those plans.

New Line refused to spend any real money until Tucker signed a deal that waived script approval. To get a sluggish project on track, the studio had gotten Tucker, Ratner and Jackie Chan to agree to waive script approval after hearing a pitch by “Rush Hour 2” scribe Jeff Nathanson. All three liked Nathanson’s pitch and Ratner and Chan signed immediately. Tucker vacillated, then declined.As that process dragged out, New Line briefly contemplated replacing Tucker with a short list of actors that included Martin Lawrence.The “X3” budget is locked, and Fox and Marvel brass consider the script by Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg to be at least as strong as that of the first two installments. The original returning stars have been signed, and the cast is bolstered by Kelsey Grammer, Vinnie Jones and Maggie Grace (“Lost”), who just came aboard as new mutant characters.

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