Lensing to begin in late spring

Universal Studios has committed to street-car racing project “Racer X,” starring Paul Walker (“She’s All That,” “Varsity Blues,” for probable release in the first half of 2001.

The project will reunite Walker with producer Neal H. Moritz and director Rob Cohen on Universal’s upcoming “The Skulls.” They have been given a budget in the $20 million to $30 million range and will focus on an undercover police officer infiltrating the world of Manhattan street racers to bust a hijacking ring. Principal photography is set to begin in late spring.

Walker is in talks to topline the picture. Scott Stuber, Universal’s executive in charge of the production, said Walker’s performance as a dysfunctional Yale student in “Skulls” had been a key factor in leading the studio to back “Racer X.”

The genesis of the story, based on an original screenplay by Gary Scott Thompson, came from a 1998 magazine article about gangs transforming ordinary Japanese cars into racing machines capable of topping 160 miles per hour.

“We’re dealing with a keystone American myth, new actors and a fresh subject matter,” Cohen said. “It’s kind of ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ meets ‘Serpico’ and ‘Donnie Brasco.’ ”

Cohen credited solid relationships with Stuber, studio chairman Stacey Snider and production chief Kevin Misher during the production of “Skulls” for convincing him to do another project for the studio. Universal recently decided to move “Skulls” to April 7 from a Feb. 18 opening.

Walker is repped by Paradigm and attorney Patti Felker and managed by John Carrabino.

(Claude Brodesser contributed to this report.)

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