Jul 29, 1998 at 12:00 am

It's always sad when a good actor bites the dust. Even sadder is when his swan song turns out to be a stinker. At least Lloyd Bridges didn't live to suffer through a final indignity at the hands of Jim Abrahams, collaborator on previous cavalcades of slapstick and sight gags, Airplane! and Hot Shots! Originally titled Jane Austen's Mafia!, but then shortened because Americans seem to be congenitally allergic to serious reading, Mafia! offers us both hope and trepidation for future ventures of this ilk.

With regard to the former, we can be fairly sure, judging by the stale and tired air permeating every second of Mafia!, that this is the last outing from Mr. Abrahams in the dubious genre he helped create. Scorsese (in particular Casino) and Coppola (in particular Godfather) are his targets, but their films lack a certain ripeness for deflation. First, they are hardly the commercial pap that were Airport and Top Gun. And they thrive on a high melodramatic content, at once engrossing us in the savage passion plays of characters, while risking the unhappy possibility that the audience will laugh at all overheated nutters. Married to the Mob exploited this dichotomy beautifully and provided a piquant satire while working up its own independent integrity of plot and character.

Not so here. Same old formula, same old dreck. Pratfalls about donkeys, sheep, Italian cultural excess and shootouts are infused with countless puerile references to the masters. We've seen it all before and it still sucks. Here's to consistency.

Far more troubling is what awaits us after the torch is passed. BASEketball, a film written by David Zucker, ex-collaborator of Abrahams, and directed by the duet of cretinous dweebs responsible for "South Park," appears the most likely candidate. Doubtless, the film will try to cover its ass with all kinds of winking and nudging PR about how the thing is supposed to be intentionally bad. Doubtless, the old black magic of irony will put the Gen-X/Y audience in the seats.

But why wring your hands over this unhappy news? Who knows, the spawn might be great and we can all relax. But given the evidence provided by Mafia! and friends, the prognosis is not good at all.

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