The film was a commercial failure but launched Anderson's career by drawing attention from critics. Director Martin Scorsese later named Bottle Rocket one of his top-ten favorite movies of the 1990s.
In Arizona, Dignan "rescues" his friend Anthony from a voluntary psychiatric unit, where he has been staying for self-described exhaustion. Dignan has an elaborate escape plan and has developed a 75-year plan that he shows to Anthony. The plan is to pull off several heists, and then meet up with a Mr. Henry, a landscaper and part-time criminal known to Dignan.
As a practice heist, the two friends break into Anthony's family's house, stealing specific items from a previously agreed upon list. Afterward, critiquing the heist, Dignan reveals that he took a pair of earrings not specified on the list. This upsets Anthony, as he had purchased the earrings for his mother as a gift and specifically left them off the list. Anthony visits his little sister at her school and asks her return the earrings. Dignan recruits Bob Mapplethorpe as a getaway driver because he is the only person they know with a car. The three of them buy a gun and return to Bob's house to plan their next heist, which will be at a local bookstore. The group bickers as Dignan struggles to describe his intricate plan.
The group steals a small sum of money from the bookstore and go "on the lam", stopping to stay at a motel. Anthony meets Inez, one of the motel maids, and the two spark a romance despite their language barrier (Inez speaks little English, and Anthony barely any Spanish). Bob learns that his marijuana crop back home has been discovered by police, and that his older brother has been arrested. Bob leaves in his car the following day to help his brother, without telling Dignan. Before leaving the motel themselves, Anthony gives Dignan an envelope to give to Inez. Dignan delivers the envelope to Inez while she is cleaning a room, not knowing the envelope has most of his and Anthony's money inside. Inez does not open the envelope and hugs Dignan to say goodbye. As Dignan is leaving, Inez asks an English-speaking male friend of hers to chase after Dignan and tell him she loves Anthony. When he delivers the message he says, "Tell Anthony I love him". Dignan fails to realize he is speaking for Inez and does not deliver the message.
Dignan discovers a dilapidated but functional Alfa Romeo Spider, and Dignan and Anthony continue with the 75-year plan. The car breaks down eventually and Anthony reveals that the envelope Dignan gave to Inez contained the rest of their cash. The two get in a confrontation and go their separate ways. Narrating a letter to his sister, Anthony says he and Bob have settled into a routine back at home that is keeping him busy. Dignan, who has joined Mr. Henry's gang, tracks Anthony down and they reconcile. Dignan invites Anthony to a heist with Mr. Henry and Anthony accepts on the condition that Bob is allowed in too. The trio meet the eccentric Mr. Henry and plan to rob a safe at a cold storage facility. Mr. Henry becomes a role model for the trio, standing up to Bob's abusive brother and tutoring Dignan on success. He invites the trio to a party at his house, and visits the group at the Mapplethorpes' house, which he compliments. Anthony learns of Inez's love for him and contacts her via phone. Her English has improved and the two rekindle their relationship.
The group conducts their heist at the cold storage facility with Applejack and Kumar, accomplices from Mr. Henry's landscaping company. The plan quickly falls apart with Kumar unable to crack the safe, and Bob accidentally firing his gun, which in turn triggers a cardiac event in Applejack. As the police arrive, Dignan has locked himself out of the escape van and is arrested and brutalized by the police. During the heist, Mr. Henry loads furniture from Bob's house into a truck. Later, Anthony and Bob visit Dignan in prison and tell him how Mr. Henry robbed Bob's house. While Bob and Anthony are saying their goodbyes, Dignan begins rattling off an escape plan and tells his friends to get into position for a get-away. After a tense moment, the two realize Dignan is joking. Dignan says to Anthony, "Isn't it funny that you used to be in the nuthouse and now I'm in jail?" as he walks back into the prison.
The film was shot entirely in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Hillsboro, Texas. The scenes at Bob Mapplethorpe's house were filmed at the John Gillin Residence, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
After the film flopped, Owen Wilson almost joined the Marines.
As of 2015, Bottle Rocket is the only film directed by Wes Anderson in which Bill Murray does not make an appearance. Murray was even considered for the role of Mr. Abe Henry.
Bottle Rocket received generally positive reviews from film critics. As of July 2015, it maintains an 85% "fresh" rating, with an average rating of 6.8/10, with critics and an 80% with audience on Rotten Tomatoes, while on Metacritic it has a 65/100 weighted average score with critics, and a 7.7 user score, which both translate to "generally favorable reviews".
Additionally, Martin Scorsese was a fan of the film, calling it one of his favorite movies of the 1990s. Wes Anderson was praised for his ability to "convey the simple joys and interactions between people so well and with such richness," Scorsese said in a 2000 interview with Esquire.
In 2008, Bottle Rocket was released on DVD and Blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection. This is Anderson's fourth film to be released in the collection after Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The original, 13 minute short film it was based on is included as a special feature, along with audio commentary, deleted scenes, and an essay of appreciation from Martin Scorsese.