The onetime bad boy is combating his reputation with a relationship with Robin Wright and his new films, ''She's So Lovely'' and ''The Game''

They didn’t have guns, but she thought they did. They crept up to Robin Wright Penn’s Toyota Land Cruiser with their hands stuffed in their pockets, simulating pistols. They ordered her to hand over the keys. ”If I was alone, it would’ve been less harrowing,” she says. ”It’s like, ‘Take the car, take the f—ing house, take everything.”’

But she wasn’t. Her two children — daughter Dylan, 5, and son Hopper, 3 — were still strapped in their seats. So before surrendering the keys, the woman who played Forrest Gump’s inamorata had to persuade two carjackers to let her kids climb out of the car.

Later that May night in 1996, her husband, Sean Penn, marveled at his wife’s composure. (In true Southern California style, Robin’s 911 call was all over the airwaves.) ”She was amazing,” he says. ”They played it on the news, and I heard her. Her voice was so calm and clear about what had happened.”

Hearing Sean Penn talk about staying calm is a little like hearing the Pope deliver a homily extolling the pleasures of Pulp Fiction. At 36, Penn has played his share of hotheads and scumbags. A purse-snatching hooligan in Bad Boys. A merciless rapist in Casualties of War. A budding thief in At Close Range. An ice-cold killer in Dead Man Walking. And, in Carlito’s Way, a lawyer. Back in the ’80s, when his four-year marriage to Madonna was snowballing into a kind of tabloid Iliad and Penn was practicing his right hook on paparazzi, he even got to do some research, courtesy of the Los Angeles County penal system. He spent 30 days behind bars after clocking a film extra in 1987; he had his driver’s license revoked. Thanks to these events, Sean Penn can speak with great conviction on the forces that lead young men to commit acts of mayhem.

But when a couple of teenagers threatened his wife and kids a year ago, right in the driveway of their Santa Monica home, Penn found himself looking at crime and punishment from a fresh vantage point. ”That was a toughie,” he says, leaning back and taking an extra-long drag of nicotine. ”There’s the death penalty as society deals with it and legislates it, and I’m against it. But then there’s each individual’s rage. That got to me, that situation. Whenever I’ve been on the other side of the law, as it were, I’ve never conspired to do malice toward somebody, so I didn’t feel like now the shoe was on the other foot or anything like that. I just felt that I wanted to see some serious justice done.”

There are times, penn knows, when it pays to remain calm.

Usually, people expect Sean Penn to drink them under the table in some dim, sticky-floored saloon — the kind of cheap-hooch dive that his late friend Charles Bukowski, the Los Angeles writer and Olympian boozehound, used to rhapsodize about. Lots of journalists have come to Los Angeles nursing ”a romantic notion of an outlaw actor,” as Penn says, but today he’s holding court in a dainty, lavender-scented hotel room, watching the fog burn off the Pacific.