The Latest Hollywood Film Trend: Trouble : Movies: Major projects often have problems, but ballooning budgets and skittish stars appear to be tearing some high-profile productions apart.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Brennan is a free-lance writer and Welkos is a Times staff writer

Like comet fragments plunging into Jupiter, some big-budget movie projects are crashing all around Hollywood these days, some disappearing altogether, while others continue to tumble toward an unknown future.

The latest big-budget project in turmoil is the Warner Bros. action film "Under Siege II," which is tentatively set to begin filming in early August. The studio this week was denying reports that producer Jon Peters was leaving the project. Some of those involved in the film said otherwise.

Sources close to the project say Peters doesn't feel he can make the movie with Steven Seagal, who starred in the original "Under Siege" blockbuster. Both men are said to like to be in control.

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Meanwhile, another Peters-produced film at Columbia Pictures, "Money Train," starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, is scheduled to go before cameras in October but has yet to hire a director. Sources say the two stars still aren't in agreement over who should direct the $40-million movie about two cops who decide to rob a subway train carrying a large amount of cash. Joseph Ruben ("Sleeping With the Enemy") has had discussions with both actors but is not yet locked in.

It is not unusual for problems to surface in major projects, but now a number of high-profile movies seem to be coming apart at the last minute. Ballooning budgets have doomed some projects, but industry insiders say big stars are getting skittish about projects with unpolished scripts.

These actors command large sums because their names are often enough to open movies, but a number of this summer's star-driven films haven't done well at the box office. Kevin Costner in "Wyatt Earp" has earned only $21.6 million to date. "I Love Trouble" with Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte has made $23.1 million, "Getting Even with Dad" starring Macaulay Culkin and Ted Danson has brought in $15.6 million, "Beverly Hills Cop III" with Eddie Murphy has earned $41 million and "City Slickers II" starring Billy Crystal has grossed $38.5 million.

Too many sour movies could lower a star's earning power because all the studios have to do is point to recent disappointing results. Therefore, the stars are paying particular attention to the written word and how their characters are portrayed.

"It's simply not enough to pay them a lot of money anymore," said entertainment attorney Peter Dekom. "A bad movie could hurt their earning capacity in the future."

In recent weeks, several major box-office stars have dropped out of projects:

* Arnold Schwarzenegger found himself out of Carolco Pictures' 11th-Century action film, "Crusade," after Carolco and its foreign investors became alarmed at the prospects of the budget soaring over $100 million.

* Michael Douglas departed Carolco's "Cutthroat Island" two months before its start date. The official line was that Douglas was exhausted after shooting the Warner Bros. film "Disclosure." But sources said the real reason Douglas bailed was because co-star Geena Davis kept insisting that "Cutthroat" have a stronger female role, which would have upstaged Douglas.

* Jodie Foster stunned 20th Century Fox with her last-minute departure from the virus film "Crisis in the Hot Zone" because she was unhappy with the script, in which she felt the characters were not developed enough.

Robert Redford, who is supposed to star in "Hot Zone," has given the writers and director Ridley Scott a date--sometime this week--to pull together the completed script. If they can't pull it off, he's out. Studio sources and those close to the star say if Redford bails out, it could sink the project altogether.

Fox is only distributing the picture and apparently has little, if any exposure. It is Scott's company that is producing and basically putting up the money. So, without major stars, he is expected to abandon the project. The only lead actress who keeps popping up as Foster's replacement is Robin Wright ("Forrest Gump").

Fox, which is in a high-stakes race with Warner Bros. to be the first out with a virus movie, faces a start date next Monday. Warner Bros. starts "Outbreak" with Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman and Rene Russo the day before. Both are $40-million movies.

One Fox source said that "Hot Zone" has been plagued by "too many cooks in the kitchen" resulting in constantly changing scripts and direction.

David Hoberman, who heads production at Walt Disney Studios, said unpolished scripts often cause projects to stumble.

"Some of these movies are being wished for before the scripts are ready," Hoberman said. "It's possible that in their desire and frenzy for big movies, people may be gambling more than they should that it will all work out."

On the pirate movie "Cutthroat Island," the public relations line was that Douglas gave up the purported $12-million role because he was exhausted after completing the Warner Bros. film "Disclosure," where he worked 11 six-day weeks. He only had two weeks to rest and learn how to fence before he would begin the four-month "Cutthroat" shoot.

But those close to Douglas say his exit had more to do with who was getting additional screen time. They say Douglas wanted the picture to be more like the 1984 romantic comedy "Romancing the Stone," in which he co-starred with Kathleen Turner.

Davis wanted her character in "Cutthroat," which is being directed by her husband, Renny Harlin, to be similar to another pirate movie, "Mistress of the Seas," which Columbia put on the back burner last year because of costs.

The tiff between highly-paid Douglas, who walked off at the last minute, and Davis, who is expected to get about $3.5 million on her first film since the box-office flop "Angie," reveals how important stars view screen time. Davis wanted the bigger role.

The problem with Davis carrying the lead role, sources say, is that she isn't considered a big draw overseas. The popularity of a star overseas is particularly critical to this film because 60% of the budget is coming from foreign investors who are banking on a worldwide name.

The big question some are asking is why didn't Carolco's chairman, Mario Kassar, dump Davis and Harlin, keep Douglas and let him bring in a new director? Nobody knows or can figure it out, and Kassar isn't talking.

Money is causing some films to fizzle before they even begin shooting.

The plug was pulled on Oliver Stone's "Noriega" and "Evita" after projected costs soared into the stratosphere.

And then there is "Crusade," which was to star Schwarzenegger. Carolco's foreign investors, Canal Plus and Pioneer, who were financing the picture, had originally anticipated a budget of about $90 million. But then the expectation bounced to $120 million, and the partners balked and said keep it to $87 million.

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