The greatest one-liner in movie history.
When terrorist-slash-exceptional thief Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) taunts hero John McClane (Bruce Willis), "Who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child?" and asks this "Mr. Cowboy" if he really thinks he stands a chance, McClane's answer—"Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker"—marks the moment that McClane, an everyman, assumes the mantle of America's archetypal heroes: Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Gunsmoke's Marshall Dillon, and others who have been so vital to American boyhood. Unlike the many action-movie one-liners that are rooted in the hero's narcissism, McClane's stems from our collective wish-fulfillment. He is not referring to himself, not suggesting an "I" or a "me" but an us. And considering the European Gruber's appreciation of fashion, finance, and the classics, McClane's comeback acquires an additional subtext: Our pop culture can beat up your high culture.
In John McClane's stance, there lies a bravado that bridges two American traditions. "Yippee-ki-yay" summons America's mythic, gunfighter past, while "motherfucker" belongs to the modern action movie. Seen in this light, the line also recalls the macho cinema of the 1970s, when Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Don Siegel helped create the action genre while continuing to trade in Westerns.
A quarter of the line (or half, depending on how you count) is profane, and yet "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker" is actually a delicate wisecrack. Underscoring the line's bridging of generations is the symmetry of its construction. On either side of the comma, past and present each get four syllables. This balance is manifested in the evenness of Willis' first—and best—delivery of the line. Subtly, he eases off "fucker," the word that, by virtue of its syntactical position, and its very nature, we might expect to land hardest on our ears. That Willis does not employ the same deftness in the sequels is a pity. The phrase is most effective not as a buildup to some hammer punch, but as one seamless unit of defiance.
With Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) and Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995), "Yippee-kai-yay, motherfucker" transformed from a one-liner to a catchphrase. It has also been lampooned by celebrities including Ice-T and Dr. Joyce Brothers, parodied by Ben Stiller, and, more recently, commemorated in song. Now, for the franchise's fourth installment, the line has become an advertising slogan, standing less for the continuity of American heroism than for the continuity of the Die Hard brand. (With wry religiosity, the ads attribute "Yippee Ki Yay Mo—" to "John 6:27," referring to McClane's June 27 return.) In contrast, early in the third film's campaign, Fox trumpeted the movie with the line "McClane Is Back." Whereas the character was then the primary draw, his catchphrase has since become an independent asset.
The marketing value of "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker" may not equal that of Bruce Willis, but then, the line is an eight-syllable phrase, not an international superstar. Its role in the new film's advertising testifies that "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker" continues to excite our nostalgia—no longer for a distant, heroic past, but for the line itself and the movie era from which it sprang. This marks the improbable distance "Yippee-ki-yay …" has traveled: from a wisecrack to a trademark to the hallmark of a genre.
Eric Lichtenfeld is the author of Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie. He blogs at www.reactionshot.blogspot.com.
Illustration by Deanna Staffo.